Local authorities on Tuesday denied claims by rights group Adhoc that they had helped Keat Kolney, sister of former Finance Minister Keat Chhon, buy farmland from about 50 ethnic Jarai families in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadaw district.
Adhoc workers and villagers said Monday that a middleman named Khin Sophal, cadastral chief of O’Yadaw district, had acted as an intermediary for Ms. Kolney, who has been locked in a legal battle over land with other Jarai families in the area for years.
“No the land is not for Keat Kolney,” Mr. Sophal said. “I am selling it to someone else” in Phnom Penh.
Currently, Mr. Sophal said he was preparing a total of 57 hectares of former Jarai land for a cassava plantation, which he will sell to a businessman in Phnom Penh he refused to name.
“We have paid $1,300 per hectare of land and it will be sold from $3,000 for cleared land to $3,500 for a cassava plantation,” Mr. Sophal said, adding that he planned to buy more land from Jarai families who had opted for private land titles last year.
Rights organizations have said that local officials had pushed the Jarai to opt for private land titles instead of community land titles last year, because the latter would take too long to acquire.
A community land title would have prevented the forests in Paknhai commune’s Lom village from being sold.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said that investigations showed that the land in Lom village was being sold to Chhan Saphal, son of Keat Kolney, and her husband, Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan.
“Keat Kolney has a lot of power so that’s why she uses her name to buy the land for her son, [Mr. Saphal],” Mr. Thy said Tuesday.
Mr. Thy also said that Ms. Kolney kept close relationships with government officials, who had already planned to sell the land on when they told the Jarai families to take private land titles.
“We have investigated and found that the authorities forced villagers to register for private land titles in order to buy their land at a low price and then sell it at a high price,” Mr. Thy said.
Ratanakkiri governor Pao Ham Phan, however, said that authorities had helped the families get private land titles because they were in need of money.
“Our authorities issued private land titles for the villagers because they [villagers] wanted to sell it for money,” he said Tuesday, adding that he had no personal relationship with Ms. Kolney.