Some 320 families in Poipet say they are the victims of a land grab. On July 16,
they put their thumbprints on a petition asking government organizations and NGOs
The families said they own plots on 20 hectares of land in Seila Khmer, a village
also known as Ang Seila, 10 kilometers outside Poipet. The families are former refugees
or poor migrants, dependent on day-to-day labour at the Poipet border crossing with
Since plans were announced to open up a new border crossing in the area, the value
of this land has gone from virtually nothing to an estimated $200,000, according
to the Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO monitoring the case.
The families said they bought the land in September 2000 after being resettled from
their previous homes, paying up to 500 baht each for a 15-by-20-meter plot. The seller
was a local NGO, DIWOC. They received a receipt, signed by DIWOC and the then village
However, as the land lacked basic facilities like water and roads, the families continued
to live in their squat slums by the railway in Poipet. But now, following plans to
renovate the railway, they will have to be out by September. With few alternatives,
they decided to go to Seila Khmer.
But when they arrived at what they believed was their land, they were stopped by
a border police officer named Nou Vantha, village representative Nit Chun said. He
told them to stay out. "Vantha threatened people who tried to live on the land
with a gun."
Following the dispute with Vantha, Chun said he went to the local police to ask for
help. But so far, nothing has happened.
Nou Vantha was working on behalf of Chea Ravy, who claimed to own a bigger area of
land, including the 300 families' plots. In a letter from the present village chief,
Chea Ravy was given the right to "clean up" the land for development.
When contacted by the Post, Ravy confirmed his claims to the land. He said he had
bought it in 2003 from 12 other private owners. The families never owned the land,
they were just fooled by DIWOC, he said.
Ravy is currently working on the land to prepare it for future development. He said
he was afraid that the villagers might come and destroy his machinery and that he
had put Nou Vantha there to prevent that.
Mike Fennema at the NGO ZOA, which is working on the spot with the case, said there
is information suggesting that the villagers could have been exposed to a dirty trick
when buying the land from DIWOC and added that there were suspicions about the organization's
director, Chum Pich.
"But of course the people buying didn't know that. And whoever bought the land
the second time would seem to me to have less right than the villagers."
He said he believed the question of who really owned the land was impossible to answer,
but requested that the provincial government take action to show concern for the
"They should make it very clear that they openly support the villagers. It would
do a lot for them."
The families have been offered free legal assistance by the Cambodian Defenders'
Project (CDP), an NGO that has worked with similar cases in the past - cases that
have involved accusations of land grabs by powerful people.
Em Sovan, a CDP lawyer in Battambang assigned to the case, said yesterday, July 29,
he had only just received the brief. "Now we wait for the people to thumbprint
the complaint and we will research the case next week."
(Additional reporting by Cheang Sokha)