Bunong indigenous people in Spean Meanchey commune’s Chamkar Te village in Mondulkiri province’s Sen Monorom town have accused a woman named Heang Sreymon of clearing their graveyard for development. Sreymon rejected the accusation and threatened to file a lawsuit against them.
The complaint was made on behalf of 37 families in Chamkar Te village.
Chamkar Te villager Ploek Chheurn, 67, told The Post on Monday that there is a 50sqm field with trees and bushes that the indigenous people had historically used for burials.
However, Sreymon claimed to own the land. She said she bought it in 2002 and received a land title. On September 23, she used machinery to clear it, desecrating tombs in the process.
Chheurn claimed that the bodies of his father, uncle, wife and two nephews were buried on the land in question. On Friday, about 20 residents gathered to protest in front of the commune hall and the commune chief promised to solve the matter.
“Villagers bury bodies and we don’t know who sells the land. A buyer said that we buried the bodies on her land. At the time I rejected it, saying who came first, the villagers or the buyer?
“But the buyer still claimed that the land belonged to her. So, we let the commune authorities solve the matter but the authorities ignored it,” Chheurn said.
The 37 families claiming the land as their own are requesting compensation to help with preparing the tombs again. They also plan on buying cows and buffalos to make offerings and ask for forgiveness for exhuming the tombs.
Dim San, a Chamkar Te villager said that in 2017, his nearly three-month-old son had died and was buried on the land. The graveyard also contains the tombs of his grandparents, uncle and nephews.
According to the customs of the indigenous people, relatives of the deceased kill cows or buffalos to make offerings in front of the tombs during a seven-day or 100-day memorial.
“Some residents had been burying deceased relatives on the land since 1981. According to our tradition, the graveyard of indigenous people cannot be desecrated,” San said.
Sreymon claimed that originally, many families had laid claim to the land. But the matter had been solved years ago. Some were allocated land and some were offered compensation, while others submitted documents to the courts for a legal battle.
Later, cadastral officials measured the land to produce a title, she said. Since then, no resident had claimed that there were tombs on the land. The problem had only surfaced after it was cleared to be developed into a resort.
“The indigenous people have a habit of doing this. Some take jars and break them, before putting it on other peoples’ land. Then, they say it is a graveyard since this year or that year.
“They sell hundreds of hectares. After they sell it, they take the jars [used as land markers] to be broken and put on other people’s land. When people from Phnom Penh come to buy it, they say it belongs to them. Now, it involves my land. They said it involves nearly 40 families.
“This is an exaggeration that harms my reputation. I will bring a legal case to a prosecutor for defaming me and slandering me as they deviate from the truth. I bought the land in 2002. In the past, tombs were never talked about,” Sreymon said.
Chamkar Te village chief So Veasna said she did not know all the details of the problem because she has only been in office for a few years. But she confirmed that after the protests, the commune chief, Kuch Meng Thou, promised to summon both sides for a solution.
Sen Monorom town governor Long Vibol claimed it was not yet known who owns the land. If any side has a document recognised by the town administration, they are the owners of the land, Vibol said.
He said in the past, indigenous people used reserved forest land for burials. But very few people had been buried on land owned by individuals.
“So, a document is important because as of now, no side has filed a complaint or protested at the town administration yet,” Vibol said.
Provincial Adhoc coordinator Yin Mengly said the authorities should coordinate on the case. If it’s found that residents do have tombs in the area, they [authorities] should solve the case for both sides.
“In Mondulkiri province, most of the people are an ethnic minority and they respect their traditions and religion. So, the authorities should focus only on the matter so that they will not lose the traditions and religion of the ethnic minority. They have followed the traditions for a long time,” he said.