Villagers in Cambodia’s Pailin province are accusing authorities of allowing a powerful local police officer to grab nearly two hectares of mountainous public land for his own use.
A villager from Pailin's Steung Kach commune who spoke with RFA’s Khmer service on condition of anonymity said that an immigration police officer named Men Savuth stationed at the Prum border checkpoint near Thailand had bulldozed the land in the commune's Phsar Prum village and begun using the land as his own property.
Villagers also contend that higher government officials have turned a blind eye to the activity, he said.
“The activities of paving mountain land have been seen in the area, including the recent grabbing of land in two different places: one at the front of the mountain and another at the back of the mountain,” the villager said.
RFA’s attempts to reach Men Savuth were unsuccessful.
Kim Sokha, chief of the Pailin Provincial Department of Environment, disputed the villagers’ claims, saying that authorities had put a stop to the land grab, documented the activity, and turned their evidence over to the courts for adjudication.
“I just want to tell you that the area is under my protection, so I supervise everything,” he told RFA.
“I won’t let anyone easily grab land or pave in the area. Moreover, I also have strategic plans for 2016. I will manage to grow trees back on the mountain,” he said.
Plans to profit
But villagers say that isn’t so, telling RFA they fear officials have plans to profit from the land since it lies near a casino.
“The mountain zone land that they took and paved will probably be used for locations to build something, because those areas are close to casino zones,” said another villager.
The villagers claim at least four different places in the forest zone near Phsar Prum village in the Saravan Mountain Range, located about 400 meters from the Khmer-Thai border checkpoint, have been taken over. While villagers often are accused of improperly using public land, the rich and powerful get away with it, they say.
In 2015, Pailin environmental authorities had led a group of more than 10 officers to uproot the pumpkin trees which yearly bear fruit belonging to about 40 village families.
The government had accused the villagers of illegally growing the pumpkins in the O’Tavao quarter. While three villagers were summoned for clarification in the case at the provincial court, it was later dropped after villagers protested the accusation.
Prak Sophima, provincial coordinator for the human rights organization Licadho, said there is little hope authorities will crack down on the land grabs.
“I would like to appeal to authorities to take action against all perpetrators of the land grabs, and not only on the and without taking any actions against the rich and the powerful,” she said.
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
Reported by Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.