Another two villagers were allowed to return after being questioned on Tuesday by the Siem Reap provincial court following a lawsuit by APSARA authority on villagers, accused of inciting others to commit felony and obstruct public work.
A total of nine villagers, including a commune police level officer, have been questioned so far in relation to APSARA’s legal case against the locals, which was reported by CamboJA.
Siem Reap Court spokesperson Yin Srang confirmed that siblings Kert Reachkol and Kert Yan have been allowed to return home.
According to Hang Touch TV online video which was live, some 100 villagers gathered in front of the provincial court to support their neighbors who showed up for questioning at the court on December 5.
In the footage, some villagers were seen lighting incense and praying to Buddha, a religious practice among Cambodians, hoping that the court would drop the charges against the villagers and not destroy their dwelling.
“I told the court that I didn’t incite [anyone],” Reachkol told CamboJA on Wednesday. “In my opinion, I shouldn’t be accused [of it] because I did not commit any act of incitement and obstruct public work,” he said.
He explained that in 2022, he fixed an additional iron front structure, and changed the roof from tarpaulin to zinc to protect the house when it rains but APSARA ordered him to remove it.
The authority came to remove it in June but was unsuccessful as the villagers gathered around and protested. “We begged them not to remove it as it would affect our livelihood,” Reachkol said.
APSARA National Authority spokesperson Long Koksal said the authority decided to file a lawsuit as the villagers refused to remove their construction, which was illegally built around Angkor heritage sites.
“When there was no cooperation [to demolish them] after we tried our best to resolve the issue [previously], we had no choice but to go with this method [lawsuit],” he said.
He said when APSARA Authority saw the illegal constructions, their officers informed house owners that they had illegally built them on the Angkor site.
“We gave them time to remove [the structures] depending on the timeframe they requested – one, two or three weeks – and reminded them when they didn’t follow the first notice,” Kosal said.
Prasat Bakong district administrative chief Din Dong said he was not aware that villagers were summoned for questioning but said that villagers had built additional front structures, and made a roof for parking which is prohibited by APSARA.
“Local authorities have compromised but importantly the area is under the control of APSARA authority,” Dong said, noting that there are six communes in Prasat Bakong where villagers live within the APSARA authority jurisdiction.
NGO rights group at Licadho Banteay Meanchey coordinator Phun Chhin urged APSARA to be more considerate of the villagers’ livelihood instead of taking legal action on them.
“He did not build a huge construction. He just fixed [a front structure] which is needed to support his daily livelihood but we are seeing a restriction by APSARA authority,” he said.
He felt that APSARA should not file a complaint against people who were fixing small things. “Accusing someone of incitement is a serious offense for villagers,” Phhin said. “We noticed that APSARA filed the complaint as a deterrent to other villagers who dare to come out and protest against their [APSARA] work.”
Previously, APSARA spokesperson told CamboJA that some 10,000 families, who volunteered to move to relocation sites of Run Ta Ek and Peak Sneng, remain under construction.
The Cambodian government is working to clear settlements around Angkor Archeological Park in an effort to retain the temple’s UNESCO World Heritage status. While thousands of people inside the Angkor Archaeological Park have been displaced on conservation grounds, communities have been allowed to stay but with restrictions. Apsara authority prohibits them from expanding their houses.