A group of families in Banteay Meanchey province filed a lawsuit on August 5 against four officials and 13 local businessmen alleging they used forged documents to claim ownership of more than 100 hectares of land in a long-running conflict dating back nearly two decades.
The 51 families have been embroiled in a dispute with local businessman Tuy Vanny over 113 hectares in Poipet City’s Nimit commune since 2001. They say that in 2015, Vanny procured land titles for 66 hectares which he claimed to have bought from 14 of the families, but villagers allege he had colluded with local authorities to create the titles to grab the farmland in Soriya village.
Provincial Deputy Prosecutor Teng Samai said August 26 that the court is conducting an investigation into the complaint over committing forgery and using forged public documents, and will summon plaintiffs to verify the case.
“I have already issued a summons for the plaintiffs,” he said, adding that they will be questioned in September.
In the complaint, a copy of which was obtained August 25, Vanny and 12 of his colleagues are accused of masterminding the land grab by forging documents and bribing cadastral officials into registering land. It accuses four former local officials with conspiracy: former Nimit Commune Chief Pal Setha, former Poipet City Governor Ngor Meng Chroun, who is now deputy provincial governor, Poipet City Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Director Prak Poly, who now works at the ministry, and former Provincial Land Management Director Ly Sari, who is also a deputy provincial governor.
Villager representative Say Sok Khoeun, 51, said August 26 that the four local officials had colluded with Vanny to create false land titles for the villagers’ agricultural land.
“They systematically colluded with each other [to make land titles] to grab villagers’ land,” he said.
Sok Khoeun said villagers had filed a complaint in 2018 requesting nullification of the documents that listed Vanny as the owner after the businessman had showed them to the Soriya residents, but authorities had ignored the complaint.
“This land dispute has gone on for nearly 20 years but there is still no resolution,” he said. “It is impacting our livelihood, especially when they have threatened to imprison us,” he said.
Sok Khoeun said he and other villagers have lived on the same 113 hectare area since 1997. He is now cultivating 2 hectares of land.
He said this year, Vanny and officials offered a settlement to villagers, saying they will provide each family an 8 meter-by-20 meter plot of land, but villagers denied the offer and deemed it unfair.
Another villager Mut Lunh, 34, said that Vanny obtained the land titles after Poipet Governor Meng Chroun issued a directive dated June 2015 saying the 113 hectares claimed by the families should not be registered in Nimit commune’s Soriya village, but in Sela Khmer village in O’Chrov district’s O’Beichoan commune. Documents allowing Vanny to occupy and use the land bear the signature of officials from O’Chrov district and cadastral authorities.
The disputed area was formerly under the jurisdiction of O’Chrov district in 1999, but was placed under control of the Poipet city administration in 2001, he said.
“It entirely violates the people’s rights that they have failed to find a resolution as we are victims,” he said.
The area was settled in 1997 by about 300 families who were evicted by Thai authorities from Ang Sela Khmer refugee camp in Banteay Meanchey along the border with Thailand. The families moved to the O’sva Ro El area near Poipet, and four years later 51 of them began disputing ownership of the 113 hectares with Vanny.
Deputy Provincial Governor Meng Chroun on August 26 denied the allegations of conspiracy.
“Villagers have the right to file a complaint but they need to have enough evidence, and if they don’t have it, they will face a problem,” he said.
“All of the documents do not involve me because all of the land certificate documents were issued by the former O’Chrov district governor and the land titles were issued by cadastral officials, not me,” Meng Chroun said.
Meng Chroun said that a provincial committee for land conflict resolution has been trying to reach a compromise between the 51 families and Vanny.
“We are making efforts to compromise so that both parties will benefit,” he said. “Even if they disagree with our suggested policy, we are just implementing the court measures and a directive from the head of the [provincial] government,” he added.
Prak Poly, Ly Sari and Tuy Vanny all could not be reached for comment.
The families’ defense lawyer, Long Panhavuth, said the provincial prosecutor has summoned 10 of his clients to verify their complaint at the court in early September.
“We have enough evidence to lodge a complaint,” he added.
Panhavuth said that provincial authorities have tried to settle the dispute by offering villagers a small plot of land, while the families are requesting 2 to 3 hectares each.
Soum Chankea, provincial coordinator at rights group Adhoc said on August 26 that he welcomed that villagers are exercising their right to file a complaint against corrupt officials, as stipulated by law.
“We have asked court officials to carry out their duty with transparency to find justice for the victims,” he said.
Chankea said local officials have ignored villagers’ calls for a resolution to their dispute, and have instead allowed Vanny’s party to grab land without repercussions.
“Officials have to serve citizens, but instead they have damaged citizens’ interests and are affecting their right to basic living standards and violating human rights,” he said.