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Sihanoukville land dispute has long trail of shady dealings

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People from Sihanoukville protest land issues in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Sihanoukville land dispute has long trail of shady dealings

A group of 120 families in Preah Sihanouk province’s Kampong Seila district have sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen seeking his intervention in their land dispute.

The families are requesting land titles so they can use the land for their livelihoods, said Sok Nil, a representative for the families.

Nil said the residents have lived on the land in Kampong Seila commune’s Veal village since 1994.

In 2004, a US company came to buy the land from them to plant acacia trees. Nil said each hectare sold for $50.

The company then promised that if the land was not developed within five years it would be handed back to the residents.

When a group of youth volunteers measured the land to make land titles in 2012, a company representative told the residents it was too late for the company to develop the area. He said the company had handed it back to them through village and commune authorities who are the ones to distribute it.

In June 2012, Hun Sen launched a land-titling scheme to be implemented by youth volunteers across the country. Its mandate was to cover areas where families live without proper legal documentation on state land.

Nil said when the volunteers measured the land in 2012, they measured only land residents did not sell to the company. They did not measure the land handed back to the residents by the firm.

“When the land measurement outcome was announced by the youth volunteers, the residents saw that the land the company bought and handed back was vacant. So we have lived and relied on it for our livelihoods ever since,” he said.

Nil said a court in 2016 issued a summons claiming deliberate damage with aggravation and illegal occupation of the property. It was not known who filed the complaint.

“We have appeared in court on several occasions according to the summons. But a plaintiff was not found and the court didn’t reveal his or her name.

“Having been informed, the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration let residents submit application forms for land registration under the management of the agriculture ministry. But commune and district authorities didn’t accept them. They said the land had an owner already,” Nil said.

Veal village chief Chey Sam told The Post on Monday that in 2012 land titles were already issued to residents. But in 2015, because the land was said to have been sold to the company and not developed, they lived on the land again.

Sam said only about 40 families live on the land when the court complaint was filed.

“Some of them made hard land tittles and sold plots. Then they grabbed land in other places nearby that had been sold from one owner to another in a anarchic way,” he said.

Kampong Seila commune chief Phong Kea said there was a trader going to buy land in the area. He said the company did not buy the land directly. Instead, the trader bought the land and sold it to the firm.

“There was a land buying spree in Veal village in 2005, before I became commune chief. The buyer was known as Samnang. He bought the land to sell to the company. But the company didn’t take the land from him. So he kept the land as his own and made land title,” he said.

Kea said specialists have gone there to measure land for distribution to the roughly 100 families in the area with proper documents. But in 2019-2020, local residents and outsiders grabbed land belonging to others.

“Certain residents in the village grabbed the land of others. Some from outside kept grabbing land belonging to others. Some know how to secretly own land and they sold it among themselves without even paperwork,” he said.

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