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Preah Vihear land dispute drags on

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Villagers locked in Preah Vihear land disputes petition for a solution at PM Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh on Thursday. Heng Chivoan

Preah Vihear land dispute drags on

Preah Vihear provincial authorities have requested villagers to stop clearing disputed land and wait for authorities to find a solution according to the “tiger skin formula”, which aims to reduce the impact of economic land concessions (ELCs) on villagers’ farming land.

The villagers have been locked in a land dispute with a private developer known as Metrei Pheap on the borders of Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey provinces.

Thirteen villagers were placed in pre-trial detention on January 19 for allegedly clearing state forest and grabbing land owned by Metrei Pheap.

This was followed by protests at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction on January 28, while a petition was delivered to the cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen and two other institutions on Thursday seeking intervention to resolve the dispute and secure the villagers’ release.

Provincial governor Un Chanda told The Post on Sunday that authorities and Metrei Pheap are close to agreeing a solution, but that it won’t be resolved while villagers continue to clear and grab land.

“Please villagers respect what has been agreed with the authorities. Stop grabbing the company’s land. Please keep the same land you already have and don’t expand further in order to avoid any further lawsuits."

“On February 6, we will lead a meeting with the company and relevant authorities, especially the provincial Department of Agriculture and the court, to review the procedures for resolving these issues and set a plan for registering the company’s land, because the company has not registered its land yet.

“It has an agreement on concession rights that has been signed with the Royal Government, so the company has enough rights in accordance with the law,” he said.

Chanda claimed that 330 families had grabbed about 1,000ha, part of which belonged to Metrei Pheap, while the rest was within the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, which is under the supervision of the provincial environment department.

The families’ representative, Lay Ly Huor, told The Post some people live in Trapaing Prasat commune’s Sre Krasaing village – situated in Oddar Meanchey province’s Trapaing Prasat district – while some live in Yeang commune’s Antil village situated in Preah Vihear province’s Choam Ksan district.

He said the families have depended on the crops on this land since 2013 without any ban from village or commune authorities and only in 2018 did soldiers claim that it belonged to Metrei Pheap.

Ly Huor said initially the company claimed the land belonged to Metrei Pheap, but then also claimed it was part of the wildlife sanctuary. The villagers are seeking transparent solution, he said, with the return of their land on the understanding that they will not grab any more.

Another villager, Chhum Savoeun, 66, told The Post, speaking through tears: “I have been farming here for five years. If they banned me at the beginning, I would not farm, but no one banned me.

“Only recently did soldiers come. They pulled out our cassava all over my farm and a few months later they came to arrest villagers and also beat us and prevented us from entering the land."

“How can we live? We depend on this land because we are farmers. I have no land, not even a metre long. So I don’t want much, just a plot of land to make a living until I die.”

Chan Sovuth, secretary of state and chair of the secretariat for ELCs at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told The Post the government has agreed in principle to allow Metrei Pheap to invest in agro-industry sector and farm animals in the area.

The company, owned by Long Chanveasna, received approval to farm 8,520ha for 70 years in a letter from the Council of Ministers dated May 4, 2012, while the period was adjusted to 50 years in a letter dated February 24, 2015.

Sovuth said that since the area was so large, relevant authorities required the company to cooperate and find a solution for the villagers before starting their activity.

Lor Chann, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said some of the families have lived in the area for a long time, while others have arrived more recently.

He claimed it was not only villagers who had grabbed land – some soldiers had also done so, so the authorities should resolve the dispute in a transparent manner.

“The authorities should go to study the situation and resolve it as an arbitrator. If they want to resolve the dispute according to the ‘tiger skin formula’ [whereby land inhabited by farmers must be cut out of a concession area], they must ascertain which villagers have lived on the land for a long time."

“For villagers who have only just claimed the land, we can request a social land concession if they have no land for farming because if the company is willing, the company can carve out a few thousand hectares for villagers.”