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Villagers meet for parley in land row

Villagers meet for parley in land row

Siem Reap Province
OFFICIALS in Siem Reap province on Thursday engaged for the first time with villagers embroiled in a land dispute that over the past 16 months has resulted in a shooting, two court cases, 12 arrests and – early last year – a mini-revolt that saw protesters briefly lock lawyers and judges inside the provincial courthouse.

At an all-day “Peace Table” forum convened by the Community Legal Education Centre, residents from neighbouring Chi Kraeng and Anlong Samnor presented claims to land they have been fighting over since 1986.

Choung Ratana, secretary general of Siem Reap provincial hall, and Sok Bora, who represented the Justice Ministry, presided over the meeting along with CLEC lawyer and representative Huon Chun Dy. Conspicuously absent, however, were two businessmen whose recent claims to the land have ratcheted up tension between the two communes, ultimately fuelling a March 2009 shooting that left four Chi Kraeng villagers wounded.

After multiple rounds of presentations, the meeting ended inconclusively, with the officials in attendance saying little beyond praising the fact that discussions had unfolded civilly. The outcome frustrated those who have been pressing for a resolution.

“For this case, I think only Prime Minister Hun Sen can resolve it, because the provincial authorities have no interest in helping us,” said Kao Soupha, a lawyer who last June brought a complaint on behalf of the four men injured in the March 2009 altercation against military police officers accused by witnesses of opening fire on demonstrators.

“They just want to go to arrest more villagers, while they have never investigated the villagers’ complaints,” Kao Soupha added.

Others had a more positive take on the proceedings. Nou Puthyk, provincial coordinator for the rights group Licadho, said that Thursday’s meeting marked the first time that affected villagers and officials had actually discussed the dispute. He noted that much of it has unfolded in court.

“It is the first time that the parties and the authorities have come together,” he said. “Maybe the authorities want to know about the case now. In the past, they have just used the court to threaten villagers.”

Suos Narin, an investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said the dispute originated in 1986, when one large village split into Chi Kraeng and Anlong Samnor communes, leaving between them an unspecified number of hectares of farmland.

Though competing claims over this land – which he described as particularly fertile – were common from that point on, he said, they became particularly heated a few years ago when two businessmen emerged saying they had documents proving their ownership of the land. Neither Suos Narin nor officials could say on Thursday exactly when this claim was first made.

Those two businessmen, Chea Oem and Ly Savy, were not present at the meeting, though they have previously said that they plan to continue farming the land. Chea Oem has claimed ownership of 92 hectares, and Ly Savy has claimed 72.

Neither could be reached on Thursday.

Sou Phirin ruled in January 2009 that all of the disputed land belonged to Anlong Samnor, Suos Narin said.

Later that month, three Chi Kraeng villagers who had been summoned to the court for questioning over allegations that they were illegally farming land in Anlong Samlor were arrested on arrival, prompting some of their fellow villagers to lock everyone in the courtroom until their release was secured.

In March 2009, military police allegedly opened fire on Chi Kraeng villagers agitating for the right to farm the disputed land, and injured four of them. No military police officers have been the subject of any complaints, though 11 villagers were ultimately arrested.

On April 15 this year, the court arrested one more villager and charged him with illegal human detention in connection with the January 2009 courthouse incident.

All 12 arrested men are still behind bars, and court officials said Thursday that they could not provide updates on the status of their cases.

Toch Sopheakdey, provincial deputy prosecutor, said the detained men were facing an array of charges, and added: “I don’t know all the details. Please contact investigating judges.”

Other court officials declined to comment.

Though Thursday’s meeting concluded with no concrete progress, and no further meetings have been scheduled, Chi Kraeng district Governor Po Sereyroth Mony said he was optimistic that a resolution would eventually be reached. Explaining the purpose of the meeting, he said, “We are here to mediate, so that these communities can come up with their own solution.”