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Refugees come home to be booted off land

Refugees come home to be booted off land

Oddar Meanchey Governor Chamrouen Cheath distributes gifts to returning refugees beneath a sign that reads: 'Congratulation ceremony of the nation from Lim Heng and Lee Yung Phat to the government to make donations to the soldiers' families in O'Smach - August 23 1999'.

JUST seven months after they returned to their homes from refugee camps in Thailand,

at least 500 families from O'Smach have been evicted from their land to make way

for a new tourist complex - all signed and sanctioned by the Prime Minister, Hun

Sen.

One hundred representatives of the beleaguered families made the 500-kilometer journey

to protest outside the Royal Palace last week, demanding the return of their land,

which was taken from them in early September to make way for two Thai companies to

build a casino and hotel complex.

Citing incidents of arrest, beatings, attempted house-burning and threats from the

military, one of the refugees spoke of how Oddar Meanchey Governor Chamrouen Cheath

tried to soften the blow of the evictions by distributing gifts from the companies,

owned by Lim Heng and Ly Yong Phatt.

"They organized a ceremony on August 23 to give out presents to the poor people,"

said the returned refugee, who wished to remain anonymous. "But then the next

day they came and started to tear down our houses."

Senator Nhek Bun Chhay, who as commander of resistance forces was based at O'Smach,

said he had tried to make the companies and the authorities compromise with returnees.

"I met with the company that was permitted by Hun Sen to make the investment;

and made three suggestions. One was to find a new patch of land for the people and

clear it of mines, the second was to provide 25 tin sheets for roofing for each family

[to build new houses], and the third was to give 20,000 baht for each family."

Bun Chhay said that the company had agreed with all his suggestions, but by the time

of the handing-out ceremony on August 23, the new land that had been cleared for

the returnees had been sold to new tenants.

"The military and the provincial governor colluded to sell the new place to

different people, not the [returnees] from O'Smach," he said.

And the donation of 20,000 baht to each family had mysteriously shrunk to between

3,000 and 5,000 baht.

In addition, a UN official said there had been allegations of nine beatings during

the evictions.

One man at the demonstration told how he had been arrested by police when they saw

his wife taking photographs of the military demolishing the houses.

"They held me under arrest for 12 hours," he said, "and they said

if they found the photographs they would kill me."

"I am afraid of what will happen back there: but now they have confiscated my

house there is no meaning left to my life," he said.

"The military came and told us to leave; they said they would kill ten people

easily [if we did not go], that it would be no problem for them."

According to the demonstrators, at least two people in O'Smach had died after they

were evicted, unable to take the strain of yet another move after years of living

in refugee camps.

"One man, about 35 years old, hanged himself from a tree," said one refugee,

"and another woman suffered a heart attack when she realized she was going to

lose her home again."

Soldiers evict the refugees and tear down their houses.

He noted bitterly that the evictions came just months after Hun Sen appealed to all

refugees in Thailand to come back to Cambodia and rebuild their lives.

"Hun Sen told us to come back in February, and to reclaim our land," he

said, "but after we came back the local authorities did not agree."

The refugees said they had been offered land by the authorities, but that it was

too far away from their homes - besides which, one pointed out, they themselves had

already demined the land around their homes.

In addition, a second UN official noted that the land offered in substitute was in

an area with a high prevalence of malaria, and was also much further away from the

border, where most of the refugees made their living working as traders.

The eviction brings into sharp focus Cambodia's plethora of land disputes, which

are erupting across the country, and which largely take place between villagers and

military or local authorities.

Because of the lack of any official land titles system, villagers are often unable

to prove that land belongs to them, or as in many cases, two people each hold deeds

for the same plot of land.

The current plans for development of O'Smach show two new markets, two hotels of

350 rooms each, and a possible casino, built by the same company, owned Ly Yong Phatt,

which runs a casino in Koh Kong.

Kem Sokha, Chairman of the Human Rights Committee, said that he had also made a trip

to O'Smach to investigate the dispute, along with generals Nhek Bun Chhay and Ke

Kim Yan.

"I sent a letter to the Ministry of Defense on July 7 requesting that they do

their best for those people [the returnees]" he said. The government returned

his letter on August 20, saying that they should contact the authorities in Oddar

Meanchey. "We sent another letter to the authorities there," said Sokha,

"but so far we have had no reply."

While the returnees insist they will stay in Phnom Penh until they receive justice,

others are worried that unless the situation is resolved soon, it may turn violent.

"We're trying to prevent violence, and also to make a process where the people

are consulted, because from the beginning there has been no consultation," said

a UN representative.

Nhek Bun Chhay also noted that with many stray soldiers in the area still holding

weapons, even after reintegration, there was a definite concern that the "villagers

may fight with the authorities".

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