Some 100 villagers from Preah Vihear province on Monday protested at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, seeking a resolution to their long-running land dispute, as well as the release of 13 villagers who have been detained for alleged land grabbing.
Lay Ly Huor, a representative of the protesters, told The Post on Tuesday that 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.
“The court has summoned 25 villagers [for questioning]. So far it has charged and detained 13 people. I asked the ministry to have them released. We also asked to live on the disputed land pending a compromise,” he said.
Ly Huor said he is collecting thumbprints for a petition he intends to hand to the Ministry of Land Management and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Provincial environment department director Song Chansocheat said the 13 villagers have been placed in pre-trial detention since January 19 for allegedly clearing state forest and grabbing land owned by Metrei Pheap.
“They were arrested for encroaching on [the company’s] economic land concession and clearing forest for private ownership,” he said.
Choam Ksan district governor Chea Kimseng said authorities have been seeking a compromise to the long-standing land dispute between Metrei Pheap and the 300 villagers.
He said the district authority was still compiling a report for the higher authority to find a solution after surveying the disputed area.
“In 2017, more than 280 families who were involved in the land dispute with Metrei Pheap filed a lawsuit. As a local authority, we could only conduct a survey."
“We have finished surveying land for between 60 and 70 families. We can’t draw any conclusion yet. Some villagers claimed the forestland was theirs, but we can’t base our conclusion on crops, such as corn, on their land to prove that they actually own the land."
“The survey hasn’t been completed. Concerning their detention, I can only report to the provincial authority,” he said.
Provincial governor Un Chanda could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Provincial court prosecutor Ty Sovinthal declined to comment, saying only that the villagers were detained on the same charges.
The prosecutor previously told The Post on January 22 that they were detained for encroaching on the protected area and charged with unspecified forestry crimes.
Lor Chann, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the detention of the 13 villagers could tarnish the government’s image and urged for a speedy resolution to the land dispute.
“It’s the provincial prosecutor’s right to charge them, but this is merely a land dispute, not an environmental crime. Why has the prosecutor pressed charges against only ordinary people? How about powerful military personnel who also have land in the area?"
“The government should review this case again and intervene to help local people in the area. If you let [military] generals do whatever they desire, the innocent people will get irritated,” he said.