Villagers take protest over long-running land dispute to Cambodian capital

They say local authorities in their home provinces have refused to help them resolve the issue.
By RFA Khmer
2022.09.06
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Villagers protest in front of Cambodia's Ministry of Justice, seeking the government's intervention in resolving a long-running land dispute, in Phnom Penh, Sept. 6, 2022.
Photo courtesy of a citizen journalist

More than 1,000 people from two Cambodian provinces staged a protest on Tuesday outside the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh, calling on the government to resolve a long-running dispute over land taken by politically connected businesspeople, sources in the country said.

The residents of several hundred villages in Koh Kong and Kampong Speu provinces west of Phnom Penh contend that they did not receive adequate compensation for farmland seized to build an airport and have been forced into poverty as a result.

Land disputes are common in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. Government officials routinely seize land for lucrative real estate ventures, leaving displaced locals with little or no recourse.

The villagers said they took their decade-long grievances to the capital city after provincial authorities turned down their request for help.

They raised banners imploring Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, to intervene and deliver justice, saying the ongoing dispute has caused them financial hardship. They also petitioned the Ministry of Justice and Hun Sen’s Cabinet, requesting that charges against more than 30 representatives of the villagers be dropped.

Authorities arrested the representatives in September 2021 during a violent roundup of protesters in Kandal province, which surrounds the capital region. They were demonstrating against land the government took from them and gave to a businessman with ties to the autocratic leader to build an airport.

Det Huor, a representative of the Koh Kong villagers, told RFA that the 1,000 people who protested on Tuesday also intended to march to the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, but were stopped by security officers.

She said villagers involved in the land dispute can no longer afford to send their children to school. She and other villagers have been imprisoned for defending their rights, she said.

“Villagers’ representatives are the most vulnerable,” she said. “When we demanded [a solution], companies filed complaints to the court. I myself was sentenced to two years in jail and ordered to pay a fine.”

The protesters’ banners displayed portraits of Hun Sen and requested he identify villagers as citizens with incomes below the poverty line, so they can receive free medical services and other benefits. They also asked that officials stop pursuing legal action against them and against village representatives in court.

Pheap Teng, another representative from Koh Kong, said authorities and wealthy Cambodians used the courts to prosecute the villagers in the land dispute between her community and the provincial airport company owned by Ly Yong Phat, a casino tycoon and senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Pheap Teng said she worries she will become even more impoverished if the dispute drags on.

“Please speed up a solution for my community,” she said. “Only Samdech [an honorific for Hun Sen] can give us a solution with Okhna [honorific] Ly Yong Phat.”

RFA couldn’t reach government spokesman Phay Siphan for comment on Tuesday.

Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said after local authorities neglected the villagers’ entreaties, the residents had to spend a lot of money seeking intervention from the central government to no avail. Because of this, he urged Hun Sen to provide a solution.

“People think that only the prime minister can resolve the conflict,” he told RFA. “This is why they urged him to deliver a solution.”

Translated by Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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