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Villagers, military face off on Siem Reap farmland

Villagers, military face off on Siem Reap farmland

Farming families in Siem Reap province have asked local authorities to protect them from soldiers they say are trying to drive them from their land with intimidation tactics, including firing rifles close to villagers.

Varin Commune Council member Prong Youn said yesterday that 123 families filed a complaint on Sunday with the commune chief asking to be shielded from a locally based army unit.

“On Wednesday morning, Infantry Unit 42 arrived and threatened and chased villagers from land where they have grown cassava for several years,” he said. “The soldiers even fired their rifles to threaten us.”

According to Youn, the soldiers told villagers that if they did not give up the land, members of the military unit would come every day to cause trouble.

“But the villagers said they will not leave their land no matter what happens,” he added.

Responding to the farmers’ claims, head of the development office of Cambodian Infantry Unit 42, Say Rorng, said: “Actually, they [the villagers] are the ones taking over our land. The government in 2009 granted the area as a concession for the use of retired soldiers.”

Rorng admitted that soldiers sometimes fired their rifles, but claimed this had nothing to do with the land dispute.

“We needed something to eat, so we shot birds,” he said. “We had no intention to threaten the villagers.”

The army unit had documents and land ownership deeds recognised at a commune and provincial level and by the Forestry Administration to prove its right to the disputed area, which measured about 50 hectares, Rorng added.

“We have owned the land since then, but in 2013 we noticed that villagers had started to farm on the land,” he said. “We told them to stop in case they didn’t know that the land belonged to us, but they did not listen.”

Soldiers themselves had been threatened by violence, Rorng claimed.

“Sometimes, when we went to tell them to leave the land, some of them take their axes and threaten us,” he said.

According to Youn, the commune councillor, if villagers were forced to leave their cassava plots, many families would face destitution.

“They are poor and their living depends on farming,” he said. “If there is no land, there is nothing to support them.”

The Varin commune chief was not available for comment.

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