Hundreds of villagers in northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province have stopped two foreign firms from clearing village land, saying the developers illegally encroached on their farms and calling on the government to rescind their concession licenses, a representative said Tuesday.
Residents of three communes in Rovieng district, which is home to mostly ethnic Kuoy villagers, have expressed frustration with a recent government decision to grant Vietnamese developer Thy Nga and Taiwanese firm PNT thousands of hectares (1 hectare = 2.5 acres) of area land, leaving little for younger generations to cultivate.
On Monday, more than 300 villagers formed a human barrier, blocking bulldozers owned by the two companies from clearing what they said was their ancestral farmland and operating outside of the boundaries set by their concessions.
The company agreed to suspend clearing the land after being confronted by villagers.
“We are demanding the companies stop clearing land and that the government cancels their licenses,” villager representative Kong Chhay told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday.
He said the companies had ignored government policy for clearing land, adding that “they should have avoided the villagers’ properties.”
Kong Chhay said residents were also angered that they no longer have enough land to give to their children after they are married and start their own families.
Rovieng district governor E Sarou told RFA that the authorities are “coordinating on the dispute between villagers and the companies.”
He acknowledged that the clearing had negatively impacted some parts of the villagers’ land, but added that he could not accept their demand to rescind the licenses because doing so “is beyond my ability.”
“The villagers are asking for the companies to completely stop clearing the land and for the government to return the land to them,” he said.
“I don’t think we can honor this request.”
Lor Chan, the provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said authorities in the district had ignored the land dispute for too long.
“I am very concerned that this dispute will explode and become a bigger issue [if not addressed],” he said.
Villagers in Preah Vihear have had several confrontations in recent months with foreign developers they accuse of encroaching on their land, some of whom they say are backed by provincial deputy prosecutor Long Sitha.
Last month, a court in Preah Vihear summoned a staff member of the nongovernmental organization Ponlok Khmer to answer charges of having “illegally detained” a work crew attempting to clear village land in Tbeng Meanchey district’s Brame commune in December 2014.
Speaking to RFA, rights worker Bek Sophean said he had not committed any crime, but had simply “monitored” the mostly ethnic Kuoy villagers as they blocked workers from Chinese land-concession companies Lan Feng and Rui Feng International, and seized their bulldozers.
Long Sitha, who unsuccessfully attempted to recover the machines from villagers in March, had meanwhile issued several additional warrants calling on protesters to appear before the court on charges of having committed criminal offenses.
In March, more than 140 mostly Kuoy families living in Rovieng’s Boeung Tonle Mrech community filed complaints with the National Assembly (parliament), the Ministry of Justice and the Court of Appeal against Long Sitha for allegedly abusing his position to tear down two stations used by community forest patrollers, according to a report by The Phnom Penh Post.
They claimed that Long Sitha—along with a coalition of village security, police and environmental officers—illegally dismantled the stations earlier that month for supposedly being built on state lands and violently engaged residents who were trying to document the destruction.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’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 Sobratsavyouth Hang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.