BOKEO, RATANAKIRI - In 1997, military and district officials got several hundred
ethnic Jarai and Tampuen to thumbprint documents the villagers could not read by
telling them that their remote area would be eligible for governmental development
assistance: roads, a new well, perhaps a school.
Indigenous highlanders face increasing pressure to sell land
Instead - unbeknown to the villagers - the documents included a sales agreement transferring
1,250 hectares of village land to Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Gen. Nuon Phea, and
rather than village development aid, each family received two kilos of salt.
The villagers - who subsequently turned down offers of financial compensation for
their land from Nuon Phea - have filed a lawsuit at the Ratanakiri provincial court
seeking to protect their rights to the land. The case is expected to come to trial
by the end of February.
"If we had known we were giving up our land for salt, we wouldn't have done
it," said one villager."We don't want money. We want our land. We can't
plant rice in the heavens. When the money is finished we will still need land for
our grandchildren. The land is important to us. It is all we have for the next generation.
Everything depends on the land. Even a fancy airplane, when it crashes, falls back
to the same earth."
The land dispute covers three villages: Chet, Klik and Chrong in Bokeo district,
Ratanakiri. People living in Chet and Klik villages are ethnic Tampuen, while Chrong
villagers are ethnic Jarai. They have lived on the disputed land for generations,
using the land communally for customary agriculture.
Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) is representing the villagers in the case under several
laws, including violation of the criminal code for fraud, and forgery of public documents.
In 1997 district officials and representatives of Gen. Nuon Phea got villagers to
unwittingly thumbprint two sets of documents: land title applications that certified
the villagers as legal owners of their land and then the sales agreement that transferred
those certificates of ownership to Nuon Phea.
"I was told that if I didn't thumbprint the papers, I would not have salt to
eat nor any land to live on," said one villager. Another villager said no one
dared to ask what the thumb-printing was about. "They said no thumbprint means
no land to live on," said the villager, who is illiterate.
Since many of the villagers were not present in the village when the incident happened,
others were pressured to thumbprint documents in the names of their fellow villagers.
In a few cases, children thumb-printed for their parents or other villagers.
"I was one of those who thumb-printed," a Tampuen from Chet village told
rights workers. "I did it with all five fingers, about a hundred times."
After the transaction was completed, in May 1997, Nuon Phea's representative, paid
US$35,000 to the deputy district governor of Bokeo, as well as the district police
chief, according to documents seen by the Post . (Since then, the deputy district
chief has retired and the police chief has been transferred to a post in a different
After the villagers became aware that their land had effectively been "sold"
for private purposes, in May 1999 they filed a complaint with the Ratanakiri provincial
court. In August 1999, a provincial land dispute commission formed by the governor
of Ratanakiri investigated the case.
Despite the commission's efforts to negotiate a compromise, villagers are adamant
that they never intended to sell their land. They have told legal aid and human rights
workers that they want the so-called sales agreement and the certificates of land
possession to be cancelled.
Eventually, the case was referred to a national-level land resolution committee -
primarily because the dispute involved such a high-ranking general. In September
2000, however, the national committee referred the case back to the Ratanakiri provincial
court, where it will become the largest indigenous land rights case to go to trial
"The case is important not only because it addresses the issue of land rights
for indigenous peoples in Cambodia, but also the broader problem of unlawful seizures
of land by powerful government officials," said Sidney Jones, executive director
of Human Rights Watch/Asia, which along with LAC, ADHOC, Oxfam Great Britain, and
the Cambodia Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, have actively
monitored the case.
In January of this year, the Ratanakiri Provincial Court began its investigation.
Village representatives were summoned to court on short notice on January 9. In the
absence of any legal representation from LAC, which had insufficient time to travel
to Ratanakiri, the investigating judge and Nuon Phea's representative, Nhean Sary,
offered the villagers financial compensation of 10 million riel (about US$2,800)
per village. Instead, the villagers insisted that they did not want to sell their
The villagers say they plan to attend the trial, en masse, once a date is scheduled,
rather than only sending a few representatives. "This is the problem of all
of us," said one Jarai villager. "If we die, it's the whole village. Thus
we want to speak with one voice. None of us will sell our land."
Ratanakiri Provincial Governor Kham Khoeun told the Post that regardless how the
court rules, he would act to protect the villagers right to their land.
"I will not force my people out from their land because they are my people,
whether they lose or win [the court case]," he said. "On behalf of the
local authorities I will support my people."
Gen Nuon Phea is a former high ranking military official in Military Region 1, which
includes Ratanakiri province. After environmental watchdog organization Global Witness
produced credible evidence of Phea's extensive involvement in illegal logging, he
was transferred from his position after the Feb 1999 Consultative Group meeting of
Cambodia's donors, in which he was mentioned by name.
Post attempts to contact him at the Ministry of Defense in Phnom Penh where he is
based were unsuccessful.