A Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor on July 7 charged Battambang Provincial Deputy Governor Sou Arafat and an oknha, Sorng Than, with corruption for their involvement in a land dispute with 200 villagers.
The two men had allegedly colluded to obtain land titles for 5,000 hectares of state forest land, occupied by hundreds of villagers, in Kors Kralor district’s Preah Phos and Chhnal Mann communes in a case dating back a decade. The dispute is now awaiting a resolution after Prime Minister Hun Sen last week ordered an inter-ministerial working group to settle the conflict.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Kuch Kimlong said July 7 that Deputy Prosecutor Soeun Moniroth had decided to charge “Oknha Sorng Than with instigation, intentional destruction and embezzlement, and bribery,” while “Sou Arafat was charged with intentional destruction and embezzlement and taking bribery.”
According to Article 601 of the Criminal Code, intentional destruction and embezzlement of a document or security, of private or public funds committed by a public official is punishable by five to 10 years in jail.
Kimlong added that they are now being questioned by the investigating judge, who will decide whether to officially charge them.
The Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) on June 27 arrested and questioned Than, who had purchased more than 5,000 hectares of land in Kors Kralor district, over the corruption allegations.
On July 1, the ACU followed up by arresting Battambang Provincial Deputy Governor Arafat over corruption for his involvement in the Kors Kralor land dispute.
Provincial Police Chief Ouch Sokhon confirmed on July 6 that the ACU had arrested both men but declined to provide details, referring questions to the ACU.
ACU Chairman Om Yentieng could not be reached for comment.
The same day Than was arrested, Hun Sen had issued a sub-decree terminating Kors Kralor District Governor Mao Sokchan from his post. A reason was not given for the termination.
Provincial Governor Nguon Ratanak and Deputy Governor Soeum Bunrith both could not be reached for comment. Land Management Ministry spokesman Seng Lot could also not be contacted.
During a Council of Ministers meeting the same day, Hun Sen ordered the ministries of Environment, Agriculture, and Land Management to form a committee to designate plots of land for villagers who have been living in protected forests, conservation areas, and wildlife sanctuaries which had been designated as state land.
“This is a solution for villagers because previously, the state has held that land according to the map, when in fact, villagers have been living for a long time on the land,” he said.
Yin Mengly, Battambang provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said last week that he welcomed the legal measures against the corrupt officials.
He said on July 3 that Adhoc has also been investigating the conflict dispute on behalf of the villagers in Tanuon village who are seeking titles for about 1,000 hectares.
Mengly explained that in 2002, Kors Kralor district was still a part of Mong Russei district, which was occupied by soldiers in Region 5 who settled in the area in 1999. Oknha Than had then gradually bought the integrated land at a cheap price from the soldiers, but possessed no land title.
“All parties involved in the land dispute are unlawful because it is public state land,” he said, adding that Than’s lawsuit against the villagers was unjust because he does not have any legal rights to the property.
“It belongs to the state and the right person to file a lawsuit should be the authorities,” he added.
Mengly said Oknha Than had also filed a complaint against Arafat for exaggerating the land measurement figure in his request to the Interior Ministry in 2016 and 2017.
“When I went to collect information, I met with Oknha [Sorng Than] and he told me about the land dispute with villagers and said he wanted the authorities to make a land title,” he said.
Than told Mengly that he had agreed to hand over 700 hectares to the provincial administration to measure for villagers in order to end the dispute, the Adhoc coordinator said, adding that the Oknha had paid $20,000 to the deputy governor as service fee for making the land titles.
However, despite agreeing on 700 hectares, provincial authorities instead made a proposal asking Interior Minister Sar Kheng to designate 2,500 hectares for them.
In 2017, Sar Kheng issued a directive designating 5,144 hectares as forest land belonging to the state under control of the Forestry Administration, and asked provincial authorities to set aside some land for villagers’ use. But authorities had ignored that directive.
In conversations with him, Mengly said the tycoon had acknowledged Arafat’s request to the Interior Ministry but said the additional 2,500 hectares were not part of their original agreement.
“Deputy governor [Arafat] might be involved in [taking bribes worth] $20,000 given by Oknha Sorng Than for asking him to make the land titles because Oknha Than had lost money and had also failed to receive land titles,” Mengly said.
Tensions escalated further in 2018, when Than filed a lawsuit against seven villager representatives, accusing them of occupying privately-owned land. The provincial court convicted them in 2019 for occupying private land and sentenced them to serve one year in prison and pay compensation of 20 million riel (about $5,000).
“The court had made a decision based on paper, but they didn’t go down to see the conflicted area,” Mengly said.
He called on the government to provide a concession to villagers so that they continue to live on the forest land.
“Villagers just want a few hectares for living and cultivating because they have no land,” he said.
Mam Katt, a 50-year-old representative for the villagers in Kors Kralor district said July 3 that he was delighted the ACU had taken action.
“I had just heard that Deputy Governor Sou Arafat took money from Oknha $20,000,” Katt said. “Villagers are happy that the government is taking legal action against corrupt officials.”
Katt said that villagers had been using the forest land since around 2006 to cultivate crops and forage for resources.
“We have occupied [forest land] because we do not have other land to live on,” he said.
The villager representative, who is from Preah Phos commune’s Tanoun village, said he was looking forward to a resolution.
“I hope that provincial authorities will solve this problem for villagers now that Samdech Hun Sen made the announcement,” Katt said, adding that he had been living on his current plot of about 10 hectares since 2009.
Katt said that Provincial Governor Nguon Ratanak announced last weekend that officials would soon inspect the disputed areas and will measure the land for villagers, but also asked that the villagers not encroach on any new areas.
Another villager, Tes Ke, 61, said July 7 that he hopes the government will resolve the ongoing dispute between the villagers and Than.
He said he had been living on about 4 hectares in Chhnal Mann commune’s Samroang village since 2007.
“Villagers have been cultivating that land for a long time, and we do not know why Oknha Sorn Than filed a complaint against us,” Ke said.
“Now, Samdech [Hun Sen] has already deal with the issue, so I dare not talk much,” he said, adding, “We are happy that Samdech [Hun Sen] found justice for us.”
Preah Phos Commune Chief Yiv Sam Ath said July 3 that an inter-ministerial working group had already inspected the disputed areas, but said there is not yet a policy for settling the land.
“Villagers are still living on the land and cultivating it, but there has been no eviction because they are waiting for the issue to be settled by the ministry,” Sam Ath said.
“It is state land with forest cover and the government has not privatized it,” he added.