Representatives of around 170 families embroiled in a land dispute in Banteay Meanchey were questioned at court Tuesday over accusations that they violated private property. About 70 villagers protested in front of the court calling for a resolution in their ongoing case.
Two villagers, Vuth Ravy, and Phal Chuot, were allowed to return home after questioning, and no charges were filed.
“We have allowed them to return home, and they aren’t charged yet,” said, Samrith Sokhon, deputy prosecutor and spokesman of the court.
In July, a private firm called Ly Sam An filed a lawsuit against eight community representatives in relation to a land dispute over 193 hectares in Tharm Puok and Phoum Thmei communes, both in Thmar Puok district. Villagers claim that the dispute began shortly after the group occupied state forest land in 2012.
Sam Vutha, 62, who attended the protest, said he had cultivated cassava on one hectare of land but that the company had tried to take it.
“I did nothing wrong because I am cultivating on my own land,” he said, adding that it was an injustice that the company tried taking the land and filed a case against villagers.
“I do not violate other individual rights because I have been cultivating the land for 5 to 6 years.”
He said that the land dispute began in 2012 after the land was excluded from state forest land during a poorly run titling survey, and the company claimed ownership of land that the villagers already occupied.
“Even though they have prohibited it, we still cultivate on that land,” Vutha said.
Phal Chuot, 66, said the company unfairly claimed title to the villagers’ land, which had been state land when they began cultivating it in 2012.
“I did not do what they have accused us of [violating private property] because I have been cultivating on the land for many years,” she said.
“If they wanted to make land titling, why did they do it on my land?” Chuot asked. “We are challenging the court case and worried about losing our land.”
In June 2012, the government issued a moratorium on Economic Land Concessions and deployed an army of student volunteers to survey and map areas in which land was under dispute — with the stated goal of handing significant amounts of private and state-owned land to individuals. But critics say loopholes allowed for new ELCs to be issued, and only a fraction of the pledged land appeared to have been given to smallholder farmers.
Em Sokha, Thmar Puok district governor, said that the company, Ly Sam An, received a land title during that title surveying process.
“I have just held the position for over one year and that case is proceeding at court,” he said. He said that the villagers started to protest when the company representative filed a lawsuit accusing them of violating private property.
“I am not sure of the specific number of land disputes but what I know is that those parties [company] have land titles legally,” Sokha said. He declined to comment further.
Hang Sam On, a lawyer representing the company, confirmed they had filed a lawsuit against the villagers but declined to elaborate on the case.
“I can’t provide detailed information to the reporter because I am a moral and professional lawyer,” he said. “I can tell you that they [company representatives] have land titles.”
Phun Chhin, provincial coordinator at rights group Licadho, who has monitored the case, called on the court not to rush its procedure or file charges against individual villagers.
“If we look at the legal framework it is difficult because they [the company representatives] have land titles,” he said.
He said that, however, the court should give a chance for relevant authorities to resolve the issue because the villagers cultivated that land before the company received its land title.
Chhin said that some villagers cultivated the land even before 2012. Some stopped when the Forestry Administration deemed it state forest land in 2012, while others continued. When the land title directive was issued in 2012, saying those who had used the land would get title, villagers returned to cultivate, but by then the company requested title to more than 193 hectares, as measured by the student volunteers.