About 50 villagers involved in an ongoing land dispute gathered at the Ministry of Justice on Monday asking for intervention after three of their representatives were arrested and charged with incitement for occupying private land in Kandal province.
About 150 families are in dispute with a private landowner over 170 hectares located in Sa’ang district’s Prasat commune. The group who arrived at the ministry to protest were sent away and asked to prepare a petition.
Kandal provincial court spokesman So Sarin, said that the court on Sunday charged three defendants—Phay Thei, 52, Bun Chanseth, 36, and Kim Borin 34—with incitement to commit a felony, but declined to comment further.
Lak Mengthy, provincial minor crime bureau police chief, said the three villagers were arrested after police received a complaint from a landowner named Sok Kan, who has accused them of incitement and occupying a private land.
“The court decided to detain them yesterday on the incitement charge,” he said. “They [the villagers] have occupied a private landholder’s land as he has the land title,” Mr. Mengthy said.
Bun Sokhorn, 54, who came to the Justice Ministry seeking the release of their representative, said that the ministry didn’t resolve anything by asking the villagers to go prepare a petition.
“We went to the Ministry of Justice to ask for the release of the three people, and a resolution regarding our ancestral lands that they have prohibited us cultivating on,” he said.
Sokhorn said that three representative villagers were arrested on Friday when authorities invited them to negotiations over their land dispute.
“The authority told us to go to Khpoap commune because the buyers had arrived to talk, and then they were detained,” on July 2, he said.
According to villagers, the buyer has laid claim to a portion of the land that villagers have been cultivating since the 1980s. The conflict began in 2019, when villagers were told to stop cultivating the land, they said.
“The authority did not allow villagers to cultivate anymore because we don’t have land titles,” Sokhorn said. He said that villagers have filed numerous complaints to the district but have yet to see a solution.
“We are uneducated, but we won’t use any violence. We obey the law, but when they ask us to negotiate, why do they take tractors to plow those lands with many security guards,” he said.
“It is affecting our emotions and our income,” he said. “We feel so tired of waiting for the government and from pressure from Covid-19 as well… I hope that Samdech Hun Sen, NGOs, and the Ministry will help in solving that problem because it is very much pressure on us, and we feel like we are thieves, and we want to get those lands back,” he added.
Pork An, 71, said he and other villagers had been cultivating the land since the 1980s, but that the dispute came to a head when people last year began returning to their farmlands after their factory jobs stopped during the pandemic.
“Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the factories shut down and people started to do farming again,” said An. He stressed that villagers hadn’t abandoned the land, but the authorities told them the land belonged to someone else, and said they could not farm there anymore.
“The authority said we citizens did not have land title while the buyers have it, but where do they get those land titles if we are landholders and we don’t know when they bought it,” he said.
“I plant rice and beans to support my family. That can support my family and feed us for half a year, but now I can not plant on my land anymore,” he said
“Currently, I just find whatever I can to feed the family, but in the past we were prosperous and we had enough income for our family,” He said.
Men Vutha, Khpab commune police chief, and Sa’ang district police chief Lorn Chantha both declined to comment. Kong Sophorn, provincial governor, declined to comment saying he was in a meeting.
Ny Sokha, president of rights group ADHOC, expressed concern over the arrest saying there did not seem to be any criminal actions and that the arrest appeared intended only to intimidate the rest of the villagers.
“It is not a good resolution to arrest people related to land disputes and it is just to threaten and break the spirit of people not to protest or seek justice in land disputes,” he said.
He said that if different parties have claimed they have land title, there are court procedures that should be used to determine who the real owners are—rather than unjustified arrests. “It violates a principle of law and is a human rights violation,” Sokha said.