Sixty-eight Khmer Krom families in Takeo province allege they are being forcibly evicted, charged by fishery authorities with illegally occupying a nature preserve.
Yesterday, three representatives from the Borei Choslar district, Sangkum Meanchey village, were summonsed to court.
“We were afraid we would be arrested, so we had to thumbprint a statement agreeing that we will not go to work on our rice fields again,” said Vy Chan, 56, one of the Khmer Krom representatives. “But, we will still go to work on our fields, because we have grown them since the 1990s.”
The villagers, who immigrated to the area from Can Tho, Vietnam, claim squatters' rights on the land, which a 2007 sub-decree established as a 8,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary.
“Don’t say [the villagers] came first. They came to clear the land after we [installed] a protected area,” said Sao Kosal, deputy director of the provincial fisheries administration.
But land officials say the villagers may have grounds to contest the eviction orders.
“There are laws and guidelines protecting local communities’ rights,” said Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management. “[Forestry officials] cannot just put up a fence and call it a protected area.”
The villagers plan to file a complaint with provincial authorities next week, and rights groups have agreed to help.
“We are concerned for their case, because they don’t have any lawyers to represent them before the court and their case is not being treated fairly,” said Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Minority Rights Organization.