Jarai villagers say they were cheated out of 500 hectares of communal
Jarai villagers in Ratanakkiri province got $40 per hectare in a questionable 500-hectare land deal. The wife of the secretary of state for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction is the new owner, but according to the 2001 Land Law, land under the collective ownership of indigenous people cannot be sold.
Bulldozers continue to clear forest for a rubber plantation in Cambodia's northeast
despite resident's claims that they were coerced into selling their land.
Residents of Kong Yok village in O'Yadav district, Ratanakkiri province, said district
and commune council authorities forced them last August to sell 500 hectares to a
well-connected woman, and that they only received $20,000 from the $90,000 deal.
The buyer, Keat Kolney, is the wife of Chann Saphan, secretary of state for the Ministry
of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. She is also the sister of Keat
Chhon, a Senior Minister and the Minister of Economics and Finance.
"They told us if we did not agree with the land sale or accept the money they
would take it anyway without pay or [even] one grain of salt," said Sayo Tem,
a resident from the ethnic Jarai village.
According to Un Samay, a Partnership for Local Governance information advisor who
investigated the case two months ago, Kolney paid $90,000 for the 500-hectare block,
but the villagers received only $20,000. He said 45 families received $400 each,
with the remaining $2,000 shared between widows and single people.
Samay said the other $70,000 went into the pockets of provincial and district authorities,
commune council members, and the village chief.
Advocates for the villagers said the sale not only cheated the Jarai villages but
violates the laws governing land sales and contract negotiations.
Under the 2001 Land Law, it is illegal to sell land that is under collective ownership
by indigenous people, wrote Huon Chuny, a senior attorney for Public Interest Legal
Advocacy Project (PILAP) in an October 2004 report.
The land sale also breaches a 1988 decree governing contract law, Chuny said. The
contract should be deemed void because the villagers were forced into signing the
agreement through threats and trickery, never given the opportunity to meet the buyer,
read the contract, or informed of the size of the land sold, he said.
Further casting doubt on the sale's legitimacy, commune officials closed the deal
by organizing a party, plying the land owners with liquor and then asking them to
sign the contracts.
Authorities supplied two cases of Crown lager, two large jars of rice wine, seven
bottles of soft drinks and about 40 kgs of pork. Once the party was well under way,
officials then asked the villagers to dip their thumbs in red ink and thumbprint
their approval of the deal.
The party was one of five meetings arranged by the Pateh commune council and the
district governor's office in order to persuade Kong Yok residents to give up their
communally owned land.
On August 27, a week after the thumpprint party, Siev Vow, the Pateh commune council
chief, Puh Svanh, Kong Yok village chief, and Kolney coached villagers on what to
Siev Vow warned them not to speak in Khmer or talk to NGO workers. He told them to
say the sale took place before the 2001 Land Law came into effect and that the land
was already agricultural, not covered in forest. Kolney then handed out sarongs and
envelopes of money to the villagers.
The residents of Kong Yok have since appealed to the village chief, district chief,
commune council, NGO workers, cadastral committee, and Ministry of Interior to have
their land returned.
Kham Khoeun, Ratanakkiri provincial governor, who according to PILAP was present
at the August 27 meeting, disagrees that the land was sold illegally.
"It's not true that the villagers were forced into an agreement," Khoeun
said. "But later NGOs were [in the village], and they encouraged the people
to be angry."
Khoeun said he sent someone down to research the case and that person concluded the
agreement was legitimate.
Kolney, who was only present for the last meeting, said the local authorities and
the commune council had been encouraging her to buy the land since 2000.
"At the beginning I thought there may be a problem with the law, but the authorities
and people from the village told me there is no problem," she said. "The
people said they are happy I was developing the area. ... I bought the land legally."