More than 400 villagers from 13 communities from southwestern Cambodia’s Sihanoukville province staged a protest on Friday, demanding that a local court drop charges against four locals detained by authorities for “violently occupying” disputed property.
The four say they are the rightful owners of property in O’khsach village, Stung Hav district, which was seized by a few wealthy people 11 years ago. They tried to reclaim the land earlier this year because property prices are increasing in and around the coastal resort city of Sihanoukville, where Chinese investors are buying up plots to build casinos.
Authorities have detained the four for the past four months pending trial.
Sun Sophat, a representative for the protesting villagers, submitted petitions they signed to a provincial court official who said he would examine the four villagers’ cases.
“We provided the court with relevant documents,” Sun Sophat told RFA’s Khmer Service. “We want the court to release them on bail because the charges against them are very unjust.”
You Veasna from the Alliance of Cambodian Farmers’ Community in Sihanoukville said he believes the protest will force the court to issue a just ruling when it hears the case on Sept 27.
“I hope the court will issue a ruling on the case base on the law and not in favor of the wealthy,” he said.
O’khsach villagers claim that they had occupied the contested land in Stung Hav district beginning in 1992 at a time when communist Khmer Rouge forces were continuing their activities against the government despite the signing of a peace accord in 1991 that formally ended the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.
Problems arose in 2007 when a group of wealthy land speculators accused the four villagers of illegally occupying the land, claiming that they had titles to the property.
Cheap Sotheary, the Sihanoukville coordinator for rights group Adhoc who is monitoring the case, said the four villagers have legal documents to prove they are the legitimate owners of the land.
Villagers said they would gather again on Sept. 27 to monitor the trial.
Illegal land grabs by developers or individuals are not uncommon in Cambodia, where officials and bureaucrats can be bribed to provide bogus land titles. Disputes over land are one of the major causes of social disturbances throughout Southeast Asia.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.