Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

For Indigenous Bunong, Land Rights Are Key to their Identity

Recently burned and cleared lots, to be made into farmland, in Sokdom commune’s Laoka village farmsite on March 19, 2024. (Meng Kroypunlok)
Recently burned and cleared lots, to be made into farmland, in Sokdom commune’s Laoka village farmsite on March 19, 2024. (Meng Kroypunlok)

Ploek Phyrom sees her identity as a Bunong Indigenous person reflected in the trees, valleys and ponds of Mondulkiri’s Sokdom commune.

She remembers place names in Bunong language, like a part of their plantation area called “krom yong,” translating roughly to “along the forest.” But she says much of the village memory of these places is fading, as the land was taken over by an economic land concession.

“Now nobody calls it that, even the children, they don’t know it,” she said.

Maybe her community would better remember this land’s Bunong name if they still could access it.

The majority-Bunong residents of rural Laoka village still try to farm, worship and live on the land they say they have occupied for generations, but two competing interests have laid claim to parts of their land. Years into two separate legal battles, the more than 100 families would not desist, because for them the land is the last element tying them to their identities.

The residents of Laoka village say they were able to register a community protected forest in 2014, but reporters were not able to verify that the forest was officially designated. They have not yet been able to gain an Indigenous Community Land Title (ICLT) – a process that in theory allows Indigenous groups to live communally without taking out private land titles, though in reality communities rarely can meet the terms to apply.

Part of their decision to attempt to fulfill the land title is to stave off the competing land claimants, one of which was granted land by the government in 2011 and the other has allegedly not shown local authorities their land title. Both entities have filed lawsuits against some or all Laoka residents, with residents convicted for their own land. After recently losing a court case, Phyrom said she worries about others trying to defend their land. 

“We keep pushing the government to take care of us, and that’s normal,” she said. “Now, we think that they are playing around with us, but what they are playing around with is dangerous for us.”

Ploek Phyrom, a resident of Laoka village and coordinator of the Mondulkiri Indigenous People’s Network, in a Bunong style gathering place near Sen Monorom city’s Phnom Doh on March 18, 2024. (Meng Kroypunlok)

Bringing the forest to court

The red-dirt roads and thinned forests of Laoka village, and its nearby community forest are the subject of two separate years-long legal disputes.

The government granted Villa Development, a company connected to a former Mondulkiri deputy governor’s wife, a total of 728 hectares in 2011. Though the company appears to be unlisted from the Commerce Ministry’s business registry, residents say the company has brought bulldozers to the land within Laoka’s forest protection area, recently accusing company employees of poisoning their cows. 

Another developer called Troeurng Yun has laid claim to part of the Laoka farmland, separate from their forest area. The residents say they have never seen the alleged landowner’s title, and beyond that they are surprised by the size of her claim.

“She’s only one person and she wants 60 or 70 hectares of land. We’re dozens of families,” said Ploek Navy, the 41-year-old sister of Phyrom.

In recent years, both battles moved from the field to the courtroom.

Residents say the private developer, described as a resident of Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, has taken them to court several times since 2015, both in the Mondulkiri provincial court and the appellate in Tbong Khmum.

Phyrom and others have been targeted as instigators against Villa Development’s activities: in 2021 she and two others were sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly dismantling a fence on company land. The next year, the company’s director Kak Ratana brought a suit against Phyrom and three others for filing a complaint against the company’s alleged deforestation in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary.

Brush and debris burn along the road just before dusk in Laoka village’s farmland area on March 19, 2024. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

Phyrom in response has countersued the company, taking the case back to the Tbong Khmum appeal court this year. When she met reporters on March 20, she said she had learned that day that her countersuit had been rejected, so she plans to take it to the Supreme Court.

Her lawyer, Son Chum Chuon, confirmed the appeal court decision and added that they plan to raise this to the higher court. However, he is concerned that the case had been improperly conducted in both lower courts, asserting that it does not follow the procedures of the law.

“Based on the facts, it’s very much a civil case, but it turned out to be a criminal case in the Mondulkiri court,” he said. “As a lawyer defending this client, we asked the Tbong Khmum Court of Appeal to overturn the verdict and turn the case into a civil case. So, we also regret that the Tbong Khmum court upheld the verdict.”

Neither Villa Development nor Troeurng Yun could be reached for comment.

Sokdom’s commune chief Neth Chhaya said she could not comment on the dispute with Villa Development, as the disputed territory was outside her commune jurisdiction. But she had tried to intervene to solve the dispute with private investor Yun.

“I have not been able to do so successfully because Troeurng Yun still insists that there is a letter of occupation, while the people have lived there for a long time. However, Troeurng Yun never showed me her land title,” Chhaya said.

The time spent in court and away from their forests and farms is frustrating for Neat Lat, a 30-year-old resident and volunteer patroller for the Laoka community forest.  

“We bring our own food to the court because we have no money to buy meals, and we have no money to stay in guesthouses,” she said. “And the court always says we’re guilty.”

Navy, who was also named alongside her sister in both suits, noted that it is becoming harder to maintain their farms under the environmental pressures of deforestation and climate change.

“I feel unhappy that the officials say we’re using violence…actually we’re volunteer forest defenders, and we don’t get paid,” she said, referencing the stipends given to community forest defenders within formal programs like the Redd+ forest carbon capture projects. “But under the Environment [Department], officials cut the land [into businesses] and destroy our forests.

“It’s very unfair to us,” she said.

Erasing identities

Laoka residents heard from NGOs that the solution could lie in an indigenous community land title, which would outline and declare their territory officially.

They began the process in the mid 2010s, but Phyrom, the Indigenous Bunong coordinator, said they met resistance from both Sokdom commune chief and the Rural Development Ministry, which oversees the first approval in the ICLT process.

“Now we have realized that the community forest land does not belong to us, so we want community land. What we want is to register the identity of our community, but they have not recognized us yet.”

Chhaya, the commune chief, said the Laoka community had approached her predecessor, but not her, about registering a land title.

“I do not know why the previous commune chief did not register the land, but I think the community does not meet all the conditions,” she said.

Indigenous communities throughout the country have tried and repeatedly failed to gain community land titles, to the point that the U.N. has repeatedly called for Cambodia to simplify the process and allow more communities the right to their land. The elaborate process is further complicated by rising land prices and the government’s systematic land registration process, where residents are given the opportunity to convert land they have occupied into nationally-registered land titles. 

Phyrom counted their struggle to get community land as another insult to their heritage. 

“The worst thing is that our names are not used,” she said, “The names of our people are not indigenous names. They’ve been changed to Khmer names like Kanha, Romdoul, Vicheika or Seiha,” she said.

Her real name is Mo Ar Rongom. “Now I feel embarrassed that I changed my name, because [names] are also meaningful for us,” she said.  

Villages and placemarkers like mountains have also lost their Bunong names, changed as officials began documenting places across the country since the early 2000s. At least on the land, the Bunong families continue traditional rotational agriculture, but many families now opt for Khmer-style houses instead of traditional wood huts.

(From left) Laoka village residents Kloh Jak, Ploek Navy and Neat Lat chat and look at photos on their phone in between farming in Mondulkiri’s Sokdom commune on March 19, 2024. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

In the end, Phyrom is not sure if gaining an Indigenous community land title would actually fend off the powerful people interested in their land.

The only reason Laoka community decided to pursue a community land title is to regain some of that identity, she explained.

“At first we didn’t know how to register [a land title], but we just wanted to live as we had before,” she explained. “Now we see it’s the first step if we want to find our identity.”

But Phyrom explained that the village and territory her community hopes to protect no longer exists.

Laoka village’s name is derived from a Bunong word, “Ngavka,” which roughly means “pond full of fish”. The new name, adopted in the early 2000s, means nothing to the Bunong community.

There was once a pond filled with fish, Phyrom added, but that placemarker is now within Villa Development’s land.