Armed guards evicted residents from their homes from a village in Cambodia’s Kratie province on Thursday as rival villagers burned their houses down when local authorities tried to hand over their land to the first group, local witnesses said.
The group of villagers who lived in Pralay Triel village, Damrey Phong commune, in the province’s Chhlong district, consists of 31 families who claimed they settled on 168 hectares (415 acres) in the area in 2012.
But last year provincial deputy governor Khann Chamnane, who is responsible for solving land disputes in the district, said the area was not large enough for the 31 families. He decided to send them to a new location, arguing that they had been living in the village illegally.
Then authorities decided to give the land to the other group of villagers, and on Dec. 14, Khann Chamnane ordered the Pralay Triel villagers to submit a written request for social concession land in a new location.
Although the villagers took their case to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction and the prime minister’s office, Kratie’s provincial governor, Sar Cahmrong, decided to give the land to a different group of 72 families three days later.
On Monday, Khann Chamnane, along with local authorities and armed guards, took the 72 families to Pralay Triel village to give them the land on which the 31 other families were still living. Their arrival sparked a four-day confrontation that ended in the forcible eviction of the occupants and the torching of their homes on Wednesday and Thursday, local said.
“Before they burned down my home, they took away axes and machete sheaths,” a Pralay Triel villager named Keo Chheng told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that it was the fourth time that her residence had been set on fire. “Now my family has no place to live.”
At least six cottages were burned down and another four were leveled by bulldozers with almost no time for the occupants to escape or gather belongings, villagers and witnesses said.
The other group of villagers was primarily responsible for burning down the houses, although authorities backed by provincial police watched them set the fires and warned the occupants of the destroyed cottages not to go near their homes unless they wanted to be arrested, villagers at the scene said.
Roeum Rum, a villager who witnessed the violence, told RFA that armed guards had physically attacked a man whose home was destroyed.
“When one [armed guard] stopped biting him, another one took over and bit him; then the authorities threw him to the ground and stomped on him,” he said.
Two villagers were arrested on Wednesday and charged with preventing authorities from doing their jobs and using violence against the authorities, respectively. They are being detained as they await trial.
Two sides of the story
A villager from the other side of the conflict said his group was occupying land given to them by the authorities, and that they planned to settle in Pralay Triel village after the area had been cleared.
“I came to live here legally with the approval of and recognized by the provincial authorities, but the other group of villagers from the 31 families refused to leave the land,” Kim Bunny said.
Srey Vutha, the deputy commander of the Kratie provincial military police who lead the demolition and burning activities, refused to comment on the operation, other than to say that “authorities came to prevent a clash between the two groups of villagers.”
Kratie deputy governor Khann Chamnane said on Wednesday that he had no clear information about the burning of the homes because he was on a mission in Phnom Penh.
The members of the 31 families say they are determined to stay put and not leave their land. They have been collecting evidence to support a complaint they intend to file and will seek intervention from various institutions, including parliament, they said.
Heng Phearak, Kratie provincial monitor for the domestic rights group Adhoc, told RFA that Kratie authorities had violated the law on land ownership with the forced evictions and ignored recommendations of Prime Minister Hun Sen on how to handle the frequent problem of disputes over land titles in Cambodia.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee traveled to Kratie to request that provincial authorities not resolve the land dispute through evictions, which would displace the 31 families and their plantations.
Reported by Prach Chev of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.