Villagers in northwestern Cambodia’s Siem Reap province on Wednesday called for local authorities to protect them and said they are considering legal action against a military unit they claim is threatening them in a bid to take over their farmland.
Members of the Varin commune council, in Siem Reap’s Varin district, told RFA that Infantry Unit 42 has brandished rifles on multiple occasions since last week to chase them from several hectares (1 hectare = 2.5 acres) of land they use to grow cassava.
The council appealed to provincial authorities to help seek a solution to the dispute and prevent the soldiers from taking over the land, which they said is their sole means of supporting their livelihoods.
Infantry Unit 42 claims nearly 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of farmland in the area used by around 100 families, saying it was granted the property as a concession from the government several years ago for the use of retired soldiers, according to Varin commune chief Chhoy Oeun.
But the unit has only been able to produce land titles issued by authorities from Sleng commune in nearby Srey Snorm district and has no official notices granting it the land, he said.
“Based on the word of the unit, they would take over all of the land,” Chhoy Oeun said, adding that he would do whatever it takes to protect his commune’s property.
Infantry Unit 42 has already taken over several parcels of land in the area and began confronting residents of Varin commune last week, firing warning shots over the heads of villagers to scare them away, Varin district councilman Prang Yon told RFA.
“Today at 9:30 a.m., soldiers chased the villagers off again and even fired their rifles to threaten them,” he said, calling the action “a serious abuse of human rights.”
The Varin commune council said it is considering bringing a lawsuit against the unit for its actions.
General Pen Voy, the head of Infantry Unit 42, could not be reached for comment on the land dispute.
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.
Rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia last month warned could threaten the country’s stability.
Last year, the number of people affected by state-involved land conflicts since 2000 grew to more than 500,000, according to Licadho.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Reported by Hang Savyuth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Khun Pagnawath. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.