Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Despite government pledge, Kandal villagers still fear losing their land

Villagers gather at the disputed land site in Kandal Province's Ang Snuol district the day after soldiers shot and injured one villager to prevent armed forces from putting up a border, June 4, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Villagers gather at the disputed land site in Kandal Province's Ang Snuol district the day after soldiers shot and injured one villager to prevent armed forces from putting up a border, June 4, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

More than 300 families in Kandal province’s Tuol Pich commune remain at risk of losing land they have farmed for decades despite a pledge from provincial authorities to resolve the dispute within the week. The pledge came after soldiers opened fire on a crowd of protesting villagers last Thursday, leaving an elderly man injured.

Heng Sophea is just one of the people from seven villages in the commune who is worried about how the land dispute will end.

“We do not believe they are able to resolve the issue, as they have promised many times since the dispute happened back last year,” he said. “But in the end, there is still no solution.”

He told CamboJA that local authorities had previously assisted villagers in selling land to unidentified traders for between $3 and $5 per square meter, with some families receiving deposits of between $300 and $500.

“It has been more than six months now, and no one has received full payment,” he said. “But instead we see the soldiers coming to clear the land and ban people from farming, and we could not accept it. Although the area is becoming a mixed-use development area, people are not demanding a higher price.”

Located along National Road 51 in Ang Snuol district’s Tuol Pich commune, the disputed site is made up of hundreds of hectares of rice fields, bamboo forests and acacia trees. At the end of last year, soldiers set up camp and announced that villages would no longer be able to farm the fields.

Standing near the concrete boundary pillar where an elderly man was wounded by bullets during last Thursday’s, 55-year-old Doeun San, who lives in Khlong village, pointed out the land his family has farmed for nearly 40 years.

“You see the surrounding bamboo forest there, but inside are the rice fields of the villagers — we depend on the land for feeding our families,” he said.

“They say it belongs to the state, they always say this, but people do not agree, and we are not allowing this land to be taken without compensation,” he said. “Because if we lose this land, the people here will be miserable because we already lack a livelihood.”

San said that after last week’s shooting, the people have pledged to protect the land until a solution is found.

“We will not have enough rice to eat, and we urge the government to look at the people who are suffering,” he said. “Why do they want to take our farming land without providing any solution?”

Provincial authorities have said that the land — previously called “Chamkar Barang”— is state property that has been reserved for landfill and military use. The area has seen an increase in development projects over the past few years, including industrial parks and a special economic zone.

The local villagers have been locked in a land conflict with the Ministry of Defense over 280 hectares of land since soldiers arrived to ban people from farming in late 2020.

Soldiers set up a tent along with a number of excavators and bulldozers in a disputed land site in Kandal province's Ang Snuol district, June 4, 2021.CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Soldiers set up a tent along with a number of excavators and bulldozers in a disputed land site in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, June 4, 2021.CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

A number of officials from the Ministry of Defense confirmed that the land belonged to the ministry but refused to comment, referring questions to the ministry’s spokesman Chhum Socheat. Socheat could not be reached for comment.

Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn told CamboJA that locals had agreed to sit down with authorities to find a resolution while waiting for the solution from the inter-ministerial joint committee. He said that in a meeting on Monday the committee had decided to re-measure people’s plots of land.

“Before they did not understand, and they were afraid of losing land without compensation,” he said. “We will offer them less than they demand, but based on state policy, because they are just farming on state land. We will also investigate those who were behind the land transactions that have created the problem as well.”

He said the next step will be to discuss the settlement based on state policy.

However, Sophorn added that there may not be any legal action against those responsible for the shooting, saying the incident had not been caused by any one individual.

“One party is protecting state property and if the person who committed the crime did so as an individual, we will arrest them,” he said. “The authorities paid the victim compensation and paid him for treatment. We apologized for the mistake, which was an unintentional act.”

The victim’s brother-in-law Ngeth Sopheap confirmed that the victim had received more than $3,000 from various charities including provincial and district authorities. However, he said the victim’s family is still considering filing a complaint. 

Local rights group Licadho, which has been monitoring the conflict, said that the victim had left hospital on Monday morning. Deputy director of monitoring Am Sam Ath insisted that authorities launch a criminal investigation into the shooting.

“In some cases, when the victim receives compensation, he may not file a civil lawsuit, and this is their right, but the criminal case remains,” he said. “Therefore, judicial police must build a case for the prosecutor to seek justice for the victims to end impunity.”

According to Licadho’s reports, there have been several shootings of land protesters by mixed forces including military soldiers in recent years, including a man who was shot in Preah Sihanouk province in January 2019 and left paralysed. In March 2018, three people were shot in Kratie after mixed forces fired into a crowd of 300 villagers protesting a violent eviction.

43-year-old villager Sem Sokhom said that she still felt angry when she thought about the violence.

“They do not serve the interests of the people,” she said. “As I understand it, the government set aside only forest land for the military and kept the rice fields for the people, so why do they want to take it all?”

Sokhom said that she believed the high land prices in the area were the reason behind the conflict.

“My feeling is that when the area is being developed and the land price goes up, they come to take the land and people here don’t know,” she said. “When the land price was cheap, they did not care. They never came here to ban people from farming. But when the price goes up, they come to take the land.”

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