Two men who allegedly led some 30 villagers to illegally grab and clear forest land within the Ream National Park for private ownership were detained by the Preah Sihanouk provincial authority on Saturday.
Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state and spokesperson of the Ministry of Environment, on Sunday identified the two as Soeb Ponlok, a Cambodian-American from Battambang province, and Taing Ken, from O’Oknha Heng commune in Preah Sihanouk.
The pair were detained on Saturday under the law on environmental protection and natural resource management and will be sent to court.
Pheaktra said park rangers and Prey Nop district police arrested the duo as they were clearing forest, building huts and growing cash crops at Prek Trabek and Smach Deng villages in Prey Nop district’s Ream commune, inside an area belonging to Ever Green, an investment company that has obtained a concession in the national park.
“Our joint task forces had ordered Soeb Ponlok to stop all illegal activities and remove all unauthorised constructions voluntarily, but he did not cooperate with the task forces and continued to build shacks and grab forest land,” he said.
Pheaktra said the Ministry of Environment on Saturday renewed its warning to villagers involved in land grabbing and unauthorised land transactions within the national park. Failure to comply, the ministry said, will result in legal actions.
“Please be careful when buying or selling land located in the protected areas because it is illegal. Anyone found to be involved in such transactions are subject to punishment in accordance with the laws."
“No one has the right to sell state land or issue state land titles. If they are still engaged in such illegal activities in the protected national park, they would lose their money due to lies and fraud,” he said.
Pheaktra said there had been many cases of state and private land grabbing in Preah Sihanouk province, with a number of suspects arrested and awaiting trials.
Pheaktra said the “anarchic” land grabbing in the province stemmed from a sharp increase in prices in recent years.
He said some villagers had been incited by traders to encroach on both state and private land under the pretext of subsistence farming and growing of tropical fruits including banana, mango, jackfruit, acacia, among others. The villagers, he said, would then claim they had been living and owning the land for years.
Pheaktra pointed out that poor people who truly need land can request an economic land concession from relevant authorities.
On Sunday, Preah Sihanouk provincial court deputy prosecutor Lim Bun Heng said the two suspects were still being questioned by police.
“They have not been sent [to court] yet,” he said.
Provincial environment department director Samut Sothearith told The Post on Sunday that the duo were the masterminds behind a group of people who had illegally cleared forest land despite repeated warnings from authorities.
“They confessed to authorities they had led the group to encroach on state land illegally. They mobilised people in Battambang province and sent them here [Preah Sihanouk province] to grab state land."
“First, authorities just instructed them to move away from the land they were clearing, but they didn’t heed the warnings and even resisted. That’s why we arrested them,” he said.