Hun Sen was preparing a veterans village for us, so why did the authorities have to take this land from us?
AHOTLY contested 8,100-hectare plot of land in Santuk district, Kampong Thom province, was devoid of villagers for the first time in five years Monday, as the last of the families embroiled in a bitter land dispute moved to a relocation site 7 kilometres away.
“I really regret that I need to leave my farm and my house, but I have no choice but to agree with the authorities because most of the village representatives have run away,” said Moeung Saroeun, 45, whose family was the last to leave the village in Kraya commune at 10am Monday.
“I never wanted to leave this village that I moved to many years ago,” she added.
The rancour between village representatives and officials was far from over, however, as a new dispute emerged over the number of families who actually lived at the old site.
Throughout the land row – which spilled over into violence most recently on November 16, when villagers set alight four vehicles belonging to a Vietnamese rubber company before 30 soldiers and military police officers turned on them with knives, hatchets and canes – village representatives have said there were about 1,750 families living there.
But Santuk district Governor Pich Sophea asserted Sunday that the representatives’ figure was severely inflated. “They used to say there were more than 1,000 families in the village, but in fact at the final total there are only 320 families,” he said, claiming the discrepancy was caused by “ghost families” invented by the village representatives in a bid to secure more land.
On Monday, Pich Sophea raised his estimated total to 450 families, still a far cry from the total claimed by Khun Sokea, chief of the Disabled Soldiers Development Community, an association of veterans and their families who began settling in Kraya commune in 2004 and received official recognition for the community in 2005.
“What the authorities are saying is not true,” Khun Sokea maintained.
“There are at least 1,700 families here. Prime Minister Hun Sen was preparing a veterans village for us, so why did the authorities have to take this land from us and give it to a Vietnamese company?”
In 2007, the 8,100-hectare plot of land was sold to the Vietnamese rubber company Tin Bien, but the families refused to relocate, initiating a drawn-out dispute that erupted in occasional violence.
Last week, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Men Sotharith sent a letter to the Agriculture Ministry requesting information on 87,000 hectares of land in Kampong Thom that have been given out in economic land concessions, including the 8,100 hectares of disputed land in Kraya commune.
SRP lawmaker and spokesman Yim Sovann said he planned to raise the issue during a National Assembly session if no response was forthcoming. Khem Chenda, director of administration at the ministry, said the letter had not arrived as of Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, rights workers expressed concern Monday about the fate of the newly relocated Kraya villagers. Chhoung Ruon, a researcher for the group Licadho, said he was particularly concerned about the possible spread of malaria, as none of the villagers had been given mosquito nets.
Pich Sophea said the district had enlisted 21 trucks to transport the villagers’ belongings to the new location site. He added that district officials were also preparing to give the villagers land titles there.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA