Uncertainty is growing over the fate of residents living in three hamlets sealed off late last month by Cambodian military under an apparent property redistribution scheme that has drawn fire from rights groups as another example of illegal land grabbing.
Armed with assault rifles, axes and knives, more than 300 soldiers from Brigade 31 of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) cordoned-off hundreds of hectares in an area known as Chey Sena, on the fringes of Bokor National Park in Kampot, and began ripping apart the homes of some 200 families living in Anlong Krom, a small collection of huts.
The evictees were forced into the nearby hamlet of Kbal Damrey and offered compensatory plots of land – land already belonging to villagers there who had no idea they would be sharing their property with strangers.
“Each family owned between two to three hectares, but the [soldiers] came and divided the land into 30m by 50m plots,” said 28-year-old Nhek Chanthol, whose mother was beaten unconscious and arrested when Kbal Damrey villagers tried to stop the military from tearing up their vegetable patches and nut plantations.
Three others were seized in the ensuing melee on June 23, when soldiers set upon villagers protesting the arbitrary dismantling and redistribution of their farms, while 20 others fled, fearing arrests.
Villagers said on July 9 that the soldiers had continued to bulldoze homes and buildings not taken down fast enough and were divvying up the land into smaller plots, leaving the original residents of Kbal Damrey fearing for their future.
“They have not compensated us for the loss of our land so how can we live now?” Chanthol said.
The military has refused to say what the seized land will be used for. Some military officials claim it will become a tree nursery, while there is speculation it will be given over to disabled former soldiers.
But rights groups have raised the alarm over yet another land grab – a practice that they say increasingly threatens the country’s stability.
“It is completely unacceptable for the authorities to be forcefully displacing people only to dump them on other people’s land,” said Kek Galabru, president of human rights group Licadho.
“It creates greater uncertainty for the relocated people, who will probably face attempts to evict them from their new land in the future.”
Also of concern for rights groups is the fact that access to the area has been denied amid stories of violence committed against those resisting the redistribution scheme.
“These villagers are completely isolated and very vulnerable to abuses which may be committed by the soldiers out of sight of NGOs and others,” Galabru said.
Licadho staff were blocked by soldiers from entering the area last month and, despite several phone calls to provincial officials to try to secure access, were unable to get inside the military cordon.
Because of the roadblocks, Licadho has not been able to provide basic humanitarian assistance to the villagers in the area.
“If the military is not doing anything wrong, then why have human rights NGOs and journalists been prevented from entering the area to see what is happening? .... Brigade 31 has no authority to seal off a village – this is completely unlawful,” Galabru added.
The original Kbal Damrey villagers claim to have bought their property from the chief of Taken commune, Galabru said, but their papers were never officially recognized by the Cadastral Office.
However, That Sophal, an officer with Brigade 31, told the Post that all the villagers had been squatting illegally on the land, which is located in the protected area of the Bokor National Park.
“We moved them because we developed the area and we want them to legalize the land,” Sophal said. “I think the protesters are the outsiders who lost the land they bought illegally and also the local sellers intend to get in [on compensation packages].”
Sophal said many local villagers had built their huts on the land only after local authorities built a new road. He said they had known the area was slated for development and had moved into the area hoping for quick speculative gains.
“They are just trying to get money,” he said.
According to Licadho, 14,000 hectares in the area were declared a national park by royal decree in November 1993 without specifying the exact boundaries.
In 2007, part of the area became a social land concession granted by the government, sponsored by the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Bun Rany, for amputee former soldiers.
A working group was formed to oversee the project which is headed by RCAF deputy commander in chief Kun Kim.
As the row escalated earlier this month, the military launched a propaganda offensive with a July 8 visit to the area by Kun Kim.
Footage was later broadcast on CTN of the event, which, according to villagers, was heavily stage managed: a few people were brought out to say how much happier they are now the land has been divided properly and they have land titles.