Villagers in the Oral district of Kampong Speu province are digging in to protect what they claim as their community forest land, despite increasing pressure from the military to leave the site.
Soy Sat, a community representative, told CamboJA that people are blocking the entrance to the forest and intend to fence part of it off with barbed wire. He also said villagers intend to replace a tent camp previously set to guard the forest with sturdier wooden sheds.
In August, the government issued a sub-decree that privatized 262.24 hectares of the forest land near Pormeas village in Oral district’s Trapaing Chor commune. It said the land was for members of the army to build houses and farm.
To prevent the trees from cutting, villagers in January had set up the makeshift campsite with tents and patrolled the area day and night to try and prevent soldiers from clearing the forest.
“We are now re-arranging the shed after the soldiers dismantled the tents set up by villagers previously and we are starting from today,” Sat said. “We are raising money from villagers to build a fence around the forest community to prevent logging.”
According to villagers, the forestland originally comprised about 2,000 hectares but has been reduced to about 800.
According to Sat, people from other villages have been sent to cut down trees in the community without prohibition from local authorities.
“They said they received orders from soldiers to cut down trees,” he said.
Chhuon Khoeun, a resident of Pormeas village, said that villagers are now patrolling with fear. The forest activists have repeatedly said that soldiers have assaulted them in the forest and fired their guns in warning. The rights group Licadho has recorded testimony from the villagers, several of whom received medical treatment for injuries they said were caused by soldiers.
“When we meet the soldiers, we try to escape from them,” he said. “We are worried about safety because we have faced many obstacles while pitching tents in the forest. The soldiers threatened to shoot us and there was violence against the people.”
Much like Sat, Khoeun also said that, after Khmer New Year, many people from other villages came to cut down trees in the wildlife sanctuary.
Six of the local forest activists are now being sued by Ben Sarith, who is known as a military officer with the armored vehicle unit, who accuses people of intentionally causing damage, threatening, public insult and incitement. The six representatives were then questioned by the provincial court in February.
Lork Sokly, one of the six, told CamboJA that villagers will continue to patrol the forest even if they face threat from soldiers.
“We came out to protect the wildlife sanctuary, which is now under threat from deforestation. At this time, the surrounding area has been cleared and wildlife is running for shelter,” he said. “We did not dare to go near the clearing area because we are worried that they [soldiers] would use violence and accuse us of obstructing their work.”
Sokly said the issue has been reported to local authorities, who have not taken action.
Officials including the village and commune chiefs, as well as the district governor, told CamboJA they don’t know what the issue is, since the land was granted to the military.
Oral district governor Nguon Veasna and Trapaing Chor commune chief Tep Nem declined to comment, saying they did not have information about the situation.
According to Licadho, the ongoing land dispute involves more than 253 families, many of whom have mobilized for months to protect their forested land.
In February three villagers were injured in clashes with soldiers and their hired workers. In March, villagers said they were beaten by soldiers, causing one woman to break her hand.
Soy Sat said that, before Khmer New year, villagers who went across the area occupied by soldiers were beaten and threatened by gunfire.
The U.S. State Department last week released its 2021 country report on human rights in Cambodia. The main message of the report is that the royal government has continued to violate human rights – notably, by threatening the use of force against political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
According to a report from the Ministry of Agriculture, as of 2021 the ministry established a total of 543 conserved forest communities across the country, covering 522,000 hectares of land.
An Phin, the Kampong Speu observer for the rights group Adhoc, has monitored the case.
“However, they [villagers] continue to protect the forest despite threats and persecution by another party,” he said, referring to the soldiers.
Phin said the government should keep this forest for the benefit of the community.
“Authorities should send a team to investigate the issue if they want to know the truth,” he said.