The Cambodian Defenders' Project and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights are struggling
to cope with the fallout from large-scale land ownership disputes, where usually
the victims or losers are the powerless poor.
CDP co-ordinator Chea Dara said in most cases land occupied by families was confiscated
by official authorities and powerful people.
The CCHR investigation division said it has dealt with 25 major land cases since
1998, in many different provinces, involving thousands of people.
This month violence has erupted at two locations where land ownership or occupation
is in dispute, at Poipet (Banteay Meanchey) and Kampong Speu.
At Poipet, where 320 families claim to be victims of a land grab, a man was shot
in the leg and another hit with an ax during an attempt to place marker poles on
plots on Sunday, August 8. Ten villagers armed with knives and axes fought with police,
who were trying to block them. The deputy police chief said his men were in the wrong.
Chhun Pich, the chairman of HRDIWOC (Human Rights Protection and Development Organization
to Improve Circumstance of Women and Orphans in Cambodia) said: "Chea Ravy is
illegally controlling the 20 hectares of land. This land belongs to 480 citizens
because they cut the forest and controlled the land before him. They were legally
accepted on documents signed by village chief Lon Sangvar and the local authority."
Chea Ravy confirmed he had bought it in 2003 from 12 other private owners.
Keo Sen, the O'Chrou district governor, said the land rightfully belonged to the
villagers, who authorities evacuated from a railway station in 2000, and resettled
in the now disputed area.
* In Kampong Speu town, villagers are sceptical about a conciliatory offer by Chumteav
You Ay, secretary of state at the Ministry of Women's and Veteran's Affairs, over
1,000 hectares of disputed land.
The dispute has been going on for five years. The villagers accuse You Ay of forcing
them to sell at below market value. You Ay says village ringleaders sold her the
land but then refused to move, and invited others to settle there. The villagers
said 550 families now farm land which is claimed by You Ay.
She has reportedly offered to build wells and a road, and give the protesting villagers
100 hectares of the disputed 1,000 hectares under her control.
She also reportedly offered amnesty to three land-grabbing ringleaders if they apologised
to the court and promised not to incite violence or take more land.
On August 9 villagers protested in Kampong Speu town about the arrest of Seng Sarath,
an alleged ringleader who has been arrested and is in prison. Police reportedly kicked
and beat people with electric batons in front of the provincial court.
The next day, dozens of villagers came to Phnom Penh and tried to protest Sarath's
innocence outside the National Assembly but were moved by police.