After spending years locked in a land dispute, villagers in Preah Sihanouk’s Prey Nop district received a conclusion they could only have dreamed of: land whose provenance is still being litigated would be returned to them, homes that had been razed at the order of authorities would be rebuilt, all expenses paid. All of it settled in less than a day.
That unprecedented conclusion, however, came not at the behest of the courts, but thanks to an order issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The premier directly intervened in the dispute on Sunday with a directive that voided a sub-decree granting the land to tycoon Cheam Phen - who owns the rights to Leo beer in Cambodia - following a court decision.
In a letter, Hun Sen ordered Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, president of the national authority for land dispute resolutions, to fix the problem.
“The governor of Preah Sihanouk, all ministries and institutions concerned shall implement the decision from the day of signing,” the letter added.
In a separate letter, Hun Sen called on tycoon and CPP Senator Mong Reththy to allow the 49 families to stay on his compound while their homes are being re-constructed at Hun Sen’s expense and by Reththy’s construction company – an offer Reththy has made in the past.
Yesterday, the premier dispatched Reththy, Chhin and his son Hun Manith to the area to deliver the news in person.
In 2007, the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court awarded the contested land to Phen. Villagers appealed the decision, which remained pending as of earlier this month, when authorities – after weeks of threats – bulldozed the homes of 21 families, many of whom had been living there for more than a decade.
Phen offered each family compensation and a 20-by-30-metre plot of land and home, but villagers rejected the offer, demanding a return of the land and new homes.
Their lawyers argued that an eviction should never have occurred before a verdict was issued, and the villagers’ calls for intervention escalated, culminating in a demonstration outside of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh home.
For the thousands of families locked in land disputes across the country, such an action is usually the final word. Residents said yesterday they were unsure how they managed to escape the fate of so many of their countrymen, but knew who to thank.
“We will thank Samdech Hun Sen, because he saved our lives,” said 50-year-old Siv Lina. “We are happiest when we heard this declaration of the prime minister’s son. We have our land back, and it is like we are being born again.”
In a meeting with residents, Manith – who is the deputy chief of the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution – said each family would receive a six-by-12-metre home located on five hectares of farmland.
“From now on, we are no longer worried about Cheam Phen,” said Siv Lina.
Phen could not be reached for comment, and Bou Bunheang, the Preah Sihanouk prosecutor who signed off on the eviction, said he did not know about the development and could not comment.
Rights groups have been aiding the residents but had mixed feelings about the high-level intervention.
Noting that he supported the assistance, Licadho provincial co-ordinator Bun Narith said that he was discomfited by the circumvention of judicial process.
“In this case, the Court of Appeal should review this verdict. There are a lot of cases where people suffer injustice,” said Narith.
“I think since Samdach Hun Sen sees too much injustice, he wanted to settle this issue urgently, because while it was still being processed at the Appeal Court, the land was cleared, thereby getting get rid of evidence. Also, the elections are nearing,” he added.
CCHR president Ou Virak said the premier’s work could be considered intervention but said it appeared necessary since the court ruled in error of the law.
“What is wrong is the wrong process of the Court of Appeal and the provincial court, which carried out this verdict in violation of the law. The Ministry of Justice has to investigate carefully and find out why it is like this.”
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]