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The lay of the land

Phuong Sorya (left), a representative for 474 families in Siem Reap province, speaks during a land dispute forum at an Adhoc office in Phnom Penh
Phuong Sorya (left), a representative for 474 families in Siem Reap province, speaks during a land dispute forum at an Adhoc office in Phnom Penh yesterday. Vireak Mai

The lay of the land

In one of the largest coordinated attempts yet to force the government to intervene in the bitter land disputes that have plagued Cambodia for decades, more than 100 complaints were filed yesterday by displaced villagers in 19 provinces across the country.

The mass filing was part of a national campaign supported by rights group Adhoc to pressure the authorities to address the issue of land grabs.

At least 26,518 hectares of land claimed by more than 11,000 families was covered by the 105 complaints, which were filed to provincial cadastral commissions, governors and courts, while one case was filed with the Apsara Authority.

“It is not the total amount [of disputes]. It is just a number, which is not the whole number we have [on record],” said Thun Saray, president of Adhoc.

Several community representatives were present at the announcement of the campaign in Phnom Penh yesterday, each speaking for several minutes of their experiences.

Phuong Sorya, a representative of 474 families from Siem Reap province’s Varin district, could not hold back tears as he spoke of how a dispute with soldiers who had designs on his family’s land led to gunfire and death threats.

Sorya, himself a retired soldier, said he could not understand why the government was ignoring his plight.

“I feel so much pain. I used my life to serve the nation as a soldier for 34 years, and after all that I cannot have a piece of land for my sacrifice,” he said.

Sorya added that some land had been granted to other people in the dispute, but the “real victims” were ignored and accused of instigating trouble.

“I would like to appeal to Prime Minister [Hun Sen] to kindly give good advice to the soldiers and not to use excessive violations of our rights,” he said.

Sorya’s story differed only in the finer details from other speakers.

Kuy Srey Mao, representing villagers from Pursat’s Veal Veng district who are entrenched in a land dispute with tycoon Try Pheap’s MDS Group, said her husband, a soldier, was taken to court by MDS after the company forcibly took his land.

“I would like … Hun Sen to recognise the soldier’s families who sacrifice for the nation. My husband has worked his whole life, and we just have a little, but it has been seized. We are facing court, it is also very unjust,” she said.

Adhoc’s Saray said the rights group would continue to keep a close eye on the cases, to see if the government acts on the complaints.

“We will continue monitoring whether or not the government pays attention to settle the disputes. It cannot just pay lip service to [these issues], but must enact deep reform,” he said. “The cases that drag on till today are all related to the government’s high-ranking officials. Does the government want to get its popularity from a handful of people or from a majority of people?”

“I strongly believe that in order to not affect [the CPP’s] popularity, [Hun Sen] should pay attention to these matters from now on,” he added.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the power to deal with complaints over land-grabbing lies not with the ruling party but with the judiciary.

“If any situation is not settled, people can file [a complaint] to the court. I believe the court’s will act and can find out who is right and who is wrong,” he said.

A moratorium was imposed by Hun Sen on new economic land concessions in May 2012, but earlier this month, the government announced it would “repackage” existing ELCs it considered “unused” and sell the leases to foreign investors anew.

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