Representatives of more than 800 ethnic Phnong families in Mondulkiri province arrived in Phnom Penh on June 3 to deliver a personal plea to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking that he order the return of traditional farmland allegedly confiscated and bulldozed by a private company.
Srev Kloek, 58, said he was representing 813 households in seven villages of Bousra commune, in Mondulkiri’s Pichenda district, whose plots of land – used sporadically by the Phnong for generations – were taken on April 9 by the Khov Chea Ly Company.
The company had illegally bulldozed more than 1,000 hectares of the ethnic minority’s traditional farmland and threatened villagers who complained with jail, Kloek said.
“We’re not scared by their threats; we just need our traditional rotating farmland. We can’t live without land for our rotating farms,” he said, referring to the Phnong’s agricultural cycle in which they use plots for three years before moving on, sometimes not returning to the same farmland for 12 or 15 years.
Kloek said the land the families were currently tending had not been cleared but those areas the group intended to return to in the future had been leveled.
Most Phnong in the region earned their living by collecting resin, vines and rattan in the forest or by growing cashews, bananas and rice.
However, Kloek said the Khov Chea Ly Company had destroyed almost all their land to make way for a rubber plantation.
“After they did that, it seems like we can’t even breathe,” he told reporters on June 3 during an outdoors press conference near the National Assembly in Phnom Penh.
A representative of the Khov Chea Ly Company, Chey Rithy, attended the briefing and called on the Phnong villagers to return to Mondulkiri.
“The company will give the land back if it really did illegally bulldoze the villagers’ traditional rotating farmland,” Rithy said.
“We only bulldozed those areas without farms or forests,” he added.
Rithy told reporters the government had provided Khov Chea Ly with a 2,700-hectare land concession and the company had so far only cleared land for a road and three bridges.
Mondulkiri deputy governor Nha Runchan said he did not know how legitimate the Phnong villagers’ complaints were, but noted that the tribe had built a reputation for being trustworthy.
“The Phnong ethnic minority always tells the truth, they never lie to anyone. So they would not complain if the company did not illegally bulldoze their farms,” Runchan said.
The Phnong representatives vowed to remain in Phnom Penh until someone working for the prime minister gave them a written statement saying they could continue to use the disputed land.