More than 200 Preah Vihear families are locked in a land dispute with a Phnom Penh police officer over a 7-hectare burial site, with villagers alleging the officer drew his service pistol on them.
Um Vanna is a Phnom Penh-based officer in the National Police’s riot squad. To the protests of local residents, Vanna lay claim to a burial site in Preah Vihear’s Sangkum Thmei district early last year.
Sun Chanda, 31, lives nearby and is among the villagers who oppose Vanna’s claim to what they say is the resting place of their ancestors.
“Vanna wants people to hand the ancestral graveyard to him for his private property, but we want to preserve it as collective property,” said Chanda.
Chanda is one of eight villagers accused in a lawsuit brought by Vanna in December of “violently grabbing and intentionally vandalising” his property.
When Vanna first arrived, accompanied by local authorities, to claim the burial site, local residents turned up to protest. It was then, according to Chanda, that Vanna drew his weapon.
“Um Vanna, dressed in his police uniform with a gun, claimed that he is an anti-riot police officer from Phnom Penh.
He threatened to shoot, saying one shot could make nine people faint and then he could send them to jail,” Chanda said.
Later, Chanda said, Vanna spent $1,500 paying local workers to clear the forest on the burial site and erect a fence around it.
The villagers responded by burning the fence and constructing a small pagoda on the site, to be inhabited by five monks charged with caring for the “sacred space”.
Last month, Preah Vihear Provincial Court issued summonses for Chanda and his seven co-defendants. As of yesterday, three had been questioned. For his part, Chanda denies any part in the vandalism.
Vanna was not reachable for yesterday. However, Sangkum Thmei District Governor Ros Heng challenged the villagers’ version of events.
Heng insists Vanna’s claim does not encroach on the burial site, but rather the two are adjacent.
In fact, he said, a local family had encroached 22 metres into the burial site but had since been evicted. Following the eviction, he continued, villagers began planting fence posts deep inside Vanna’s land, which he says he inherited.
Chanda, who is one of the defendants in the lawsuit, does not doubt Vanna’s local connection but maintains the land is not his.
“We do not know why Vanna claimed the land belongs to him,” he said. “He just was born in the nearby commune.”