More than 120 Banteay Meanchey province villagers lodged a complaint on Monday with rights group Adhoc after a local businessman allegedly grabbed 611 hectares of their land in a village straddling the border between O’Chrou and Svay Chek districts, residents and rights workers said.
The dispute began in early 2008 when wealthy businessman Sam Phannarith sent machinery to Thnal Bat village to start clearing the area, according to village chief Tha Toun. After protests from residents, Mr Phannarith did not try clearing the land again until April, when residents say they complained to O’Chrou district authorities and the Interior Ministry asking them to intervene.
Since then, about 500 hectares of land have been cleared and authorities have yet to resolve the issue, Mr Toun claimed.
“So far there is no resolution, which is why we are here to seek help from a local rights group to ask authorities to speed up its progress in solving this problem,” he said, adding that Mr Phannarith has “intimidated and prohibited [villagers] from growing rice and planting crops.”
Mr Phannarith could not be reached yesterday.
Local officials said yesterday that responding to the villagers’ complaints had been complicated by matters of jurisdiction. O’Chrou district governor Keo Sen said that although he had received the complaint in April, the disputed land was actually located wholly within Svay Chek district. Svay Chek district governor Khou Pov agreed yesterday.
Mr Pov said he knew of Mr Phannarith’s activities but that the businessman was merely helping to clear 510 hectares of land for a social land concession to house about 1,000 homeless families currently residing in Poipet City, as well as demobilized and disabled soldiers.
“[Mr Phannarith] doesn’t have a claim on the land. He is preparing plots of land for villagers,” he said.
However, Adhoc provincial coordinator Soum Chankea said his group believes that Mr Phannarith has been granted an economic land concession, and is working on obtaining documents to prove it.
Adhoc will send a letter to provincial authorities this week asking them to intervene and grant the villagers formal land rights.