Authorities, Community Dig In as Eviction Deadline Nears

Armed authorities set up camp Monday near a waterfall on the outskirts of Sihanoukville popular among tourists, ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for a community living on state land there to vacate the area, officials said.

Accompanied by Preah Sihanouk deputy provincial governor Srun Sroan, dozens of police, military police, soldiers and Forestry Administration officials descended on the area above the Kbal Chhay waterfall, where authorities say about 40 crude shacks have recently been built alongside 99 others already standing there—all of which are illegal.

“The provincial level sent a force of more than 30 men…to prevent those people from illegally building homes on that land,” Mr. Sroan said.

While he declined to elaborate on what action the mixed force might take against the residents, he referred a reporter to a November 3 announcement from Sihanoukville governor Chin Sarin that gives families who moved to the area after June 25 one week to leave.

“That week started on November 4—you can count seven days,” Mr. Sroan said.

The deputy governor said that authorities had drawn the line at June 25 to distinguish “old people” from “new people,” saying the new residents were believed to be middlemen looking to secure the valuable land for others.

The government has promised to relocate the “old people” to land in Stung Hav district, Mr. Sroan said.

“The new people are not really poor people. They have been sent to occupy that land for rich people so they can sell it later,” he said.

On November 1, members of the community at Kbal Chhay burned tires in the middle of National Road 4 to protest the destruction of eight houses by police and military police earlier that day. Authorities called off the operation after residents’ increasing anger caused them to fear for their safety.

The Kbal Chhay waterfall is one of only two sources of fresh water that supply the coastal town of Sihanoukville, parts of which went five days without water in April last year when the second source, Prek Tup Lake, dried up.

Chhit Sophat, chief of Muoy commune, said that two new shacks were erected as recently as Sunday and that the growing community was posing a risk to the town’s water supply.

Mr. Sophat said a 1997 sub-decree protected the waterfall and a 6,000-hectare surrounding area, where the government grows acacia trees.

“We must prevent those people from illegally constructing their cottages and illegally clearing the forest because that area is vital to the fresh water supply of Sihanoukville,” he said.

Cheap Sotheary, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the arrival of armed authorities Monday was the strongest signal yet that the evictions would go ahead.

“This is the first time that the authorities sent soldiers to stop the activity of the people in Kbal Chhay,” she said, estimating that the force numbered about 60. “I watched them set up their tents to stand watch there.”

But while Ms. Sotheary said she entreated authorities to refrain from using violence, she conceded that the villagers have no legal claim to the land.

“According to the law, we cannot help them because they went there to live illegally…with no documents,” she said.

Lun Sotin, 32, one of the so-called “old people,” said he had lived at Kbal Chhay since 2010, when he bought the land there from a soldier. He said many of the residents had also bought land from soldiers at around the same time, and that some of those buyers had then sold their land on.

“I bought the land from a soldier for $500 but I do not have a certificate because it was a verbal contract,” Mr. Sotin said.

“We knew it was illegal [to live there], but we are poor, so we took a risk to go there,” he added.

“If the authorities move us violently, we will also use violence against the authorities.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the November 3 announcement came from provincial governor Chhit Sokhon.

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