B Meanchey Commune Office Surrounded by Land Protesters

More than 200 land protesters from four villages in Banteay Meanchey province surrounded a commune office on Thursday and May 7 in a bid to pressure local officials to solve their five-year-long land battle with RCAF soldiers and a private company.

The two-day protest erupted after some 20 soldiers from Malai district were deployed Monday to 400 hectares of disputed land to prevent villagers from approaching the area to cultivate crops, protester Sar Kong said on May 7.

The land has been claimed and farmed since 2001 by 230 families from Nang Tung and O’Svay villages in Malai district’s Takong commune, said Mr Kong, 45.

“We are depending on the farmland for planting crops to make a living,” he said. “To lose the land, it means losing 99 percent of the key sources of our income.”

Mr Kong and other protesters say their dispute is with the So Chanthou company, which is owned by So Chanthou, the wife of Om Hak, director of Banteay Meanchey Provincial Tax and Excise De­partment. The villagers claim the company has grabbed their land and deployed troops to intimidate them.

Takong commune chief Ke Vin said that he was able to persuade the protesters to remain calm when they surrounded his office, promising to voice their concerns at the district and provincial levels.

“The history of this land is really complicated,” Mr Vin said. “My people have been cultivating that land for several years, while the second party have legal land titles proving ownership,” he said.

Mr Vin confirmed that soldiers are not stationed on the contested land to protect the heavy machinery of the businesswoman who is claiming to be the rightful owner.

Ms Chanthou could not be reached for comment.

Deputy district RCAF commander Nhem Sarun confirmed on May 7 that troops were now in­volved in the dispute but were sent to the area on the orders of provincial RCAF commanders.

“They are special military but not under my jurisdiction,” Mr Sarun said. “To my knowledge, the firm asked for a few soldiers to guard their fields as well as their excavators.”

Malai district deputy governor Nin Phuok said she hoped the villagers would bring their complaint directly to her instead of surrounding the commune office.

“We want to meet the villagers and hope they will give us sufficient documents proving their many years using that land,” she said.

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