Local officials in Ratanakkiri province made a total of $10,000 during the controversial sale of 500 hectares of ethnic minority land to Keat Kolney, sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, according to a draft report by local rights group Adhoc obtained Thursday.
According to the report, six members of the Bate commune council in O’Yadaw district made $900 each in 2004, while an additional $4,600 was obtained by a senior district official.
A Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer representing the villagers who sold the land said the deal was illegal because the 2001 Land Law bans the sale of indigenous people’s communal lands.
Bate and O’Yadaw officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
The report accuses village and commune officials of telling villagers that the government would confiscate their land if they did not part with it for cash.
Six commune officials held a drinking party and coerced the villagers into thumbprinting papers, which they were told later that year were sales contracts, the report said.
On Aug 27 2004, Keat Kolney, the wife of Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan, presented each family with payments in envelopes that were later taken by commune council officials, who returned lesser payments of $400, the report said.
Although 48 families received only $400 each for the land, some $19,200, Keat Kolney paid around $90,000 in total, said Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc. “Through our investigation, we learned that many officials at the village, commune, district and provincial levels have taken money,” he said.
Villagers insist that they believed they were selling only 50 hectares, not 500 hectares, said Meach Sam An, a Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer representing the villagers.
He added that the villagers were told the land was going to be used to build a center for disabled people.
Neither Keat Kolney nor her representative Ith Sam Ath could be contacted Thursday.
At the Consultative Group donors meeting, which he chaired, Keat Chhon spoke on Thursday of the importance of improving the livelihoods of the rural poor, adding that priority is being given to land reforms.