A group of indigenous Bunong people from Mondulkiri province are seeking the return of communal land that was sold off by local villagers to a pair of high-ranking officials in Phnom Penh.
Four Bunong people representing roughly 90 families travelled to Phnom Penh and submitted their complaint on Tuesday June 29. The complaint asked Interior Minister Sar Kheng to revoke the sale of 19 hectares to former Ratanakkiri provincial military police commander Kim Reaksmey and Phnom Penh municipal police chief Sar Thet.
The complaint accused three local villagers—Ploeun Pyin, Prak Vanna and Nhev Mao— of colluding with Kim Reaksmey to prepare documents requesting the occupation of mountainous land and rotational farmland which belonged collectively to members of the Mnong minority.
According to the villagers, Reaksmey had bought about 7 hectares from Ploeun Pyin and Prak Vanna, while Sar Thet bought 12 hectares from Nhev Mao. Both plots of land are located in Poluong village in Senmonorom city’s Romnea commune. Villagers claimed that in November last year, Reaksmey burned down houses belonging to two villagers and demolished 200 wooden fences.
“[We] demand the land back and to be registered as a spirit mountain [according to our] traditions to serve the interest of the community,” the complaint read. “We ask for a penalty for those four people and other people who were involved.”
Pom Chhing, a Bunong villager who had submitted the complaint to the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, told CamboJA that she hoped the top leaders would intervene and give the communal land back to the indigenous minority.
She said that they had started to build a fence in May this year that would not allow the community to enter the area and cultivate it for the purposes of rotational cropping. She noted that the 90 or so families who had submitted the complaint had been cultivating the land since the time of their ancestors.
“We do not accuse him [Sar Thet] of stealing those lands, but we have documents which show his name as the buyer,” she said. “It has affected the land that we use for shifting cultivation, rotational cropping, land for looking after cattle, and the spirit forest where we have been praying … We hope that they will help us, and if they ignore us, we don’t know what to do.”
Another representative, 34-year-old Brom Krak, said that the community had never agreed to sell the communal land.
“They sold our land in July 2020,” she said. “We have enough documents of the buying and selling of those lands. We disagreed [on selling the land], so we filed a complaint to demand our land back.”
Phnom Penh Municipal police chief Sar Thet confirmed that he had bought the land from the villagers, though he maintained that the sale had been legitimate. He said that he had planned to develop the 12 hectares as farmland to help the local economy.
“It is legal [to buy land] because there is a guarantee by the authorities,” he said. “I am legitimate and if you don’t believe me, you can ask the authorities.”
Thet alleged that the villagers may have argued and cheated each other after failing to share the proceeds from the sale equally. He added that those lands were not designated as conservation areas.
Kim Reaksmey, the former military police commander, could not be reached for comment.
Romnea commune chief Thy Ngouk claimed that the case did not involve the theft of communal land, but rather a dispute among the villagers on how the money raised from the sale should be shared.
“They are arguing due to not sharing the money equally,” he said. “They agreed to sell communal land.” He declined to comment further.
Boreth Kompi, an assistant at rights group Adhoc in Mondulkiri, said the sale of the land had been against the interests of the community.
“Both seller and buyer are wrong, because they have claimed to have ownership of state land,” he said. He said the indigenous minority had long been living and cultivating along the mountains according to their ancestral traditions.
“When the mountain lands were sold, it affected their traditions, such as their spirit forest as well as rotational cultivation,” he said. “The government should give the communal land to that minority or revoke it back to the state.”
Provincial governor Svay Sam Eang and his deputy Chak Mengheang could not be reached for comment.