battambang town – Military Region 5 General Van Sophat is aware of complaints that the military is pushing poor villagers off land. He can rattle off a list of cases the Battambang courts are currently examining:
In Banan district, soldiers from Division 18 allegedly moved in their families by force and built homes.
Soldiers from Division 21 are charged with threatening villagers with weapons and stealing land in Sangke district.
Division 8 troops are accused of stealing fishing grounds on the Tonle Sap.
The number of land disputes involving the military has risen dramatically since Khmer Rouge forces began to defect in 1996, Van Sophat admitted. Most cases are settled out of court. The biggest perpetrators, he said, are recent Khmer Rouge defectors or soldiers who have been fighting over bits of this province for almost 30 years.
“We must educate soldiers and defectors on how they must respect the people’s rights,” Van Sophat said. “But if there is no agreement over land disputes even after education, we will send them to the court.”
He was one of the high-level government and military officials who met in two different forums in Battambang town Thursday to try to bring an end to land disputes.
One public forum, sponsored by the Center for Social Development, dealt with the land-dispute issue as a whole. Another, hosted by the Cambodian Mine Action Center, focused on what happens to land after it is demined.
It’s not just the lower ranks and less-educated soldiers that are accused of grabbing land in Battambang, officials said.
A dispute over 6 hectares of land CMAC demined on Route 10 connecting Battambang with Pailin was resolved out of court last February. Powerful Division 3 General Kao Saran was accused of taking the land.
In the end, he paid the 48 displaced families about $20 each and gave them new pieces of land nearby, said El Say, director of the province’s rural development department.
The province’s second deputy governor, Nam Tum, said he will do his best to make sure that high-profile figures stop taking land.
“If it happens, we are prepared to tell commanders to sit down and talk to the authorities and solve the problem together. But if the commander does not return the land, we will take action according to the law,” Nam Tum told CMAC officials Thursday.
As part of that plan, committees made up of representatives of demining organizations, NGOs, aid agencies, the military, and officials from the provincial, district and commune levels will try to coordinate development and demining plans for various areas, Nam Tum said.
“RCAF and CMAC have had some friction, but we cannot afford fighting. There are too many poor people waiting for land,” said CMAC General Director Sam Sotha.
But while efforts to coordinate demining and development in the province may help with the future allocation of CMAC-demined land, it is not clear how much that will help the flood of other land disputes in Battambang province.
“This year I dealt with about 1,000 cases involving land disputes. Please don’t complain to me; I only have three people in my office to solve these cases,” Battambang’s Chief of Court Nil Nonn told villagers and military officials in the Center for Social Development forum.
The main problem in these disputes is that the current land law is not clear about who owns what land nor what evidence can be used to show possession, Nil Nonn said, waving a copy of the law in his hand.
In Battambang, the combination of mass migration in the wake of fighting; the resulting resettlements by displaced people; land mines, and some of the country’s most fertile soil makes the issue of land possession that much more confusing.
The current legal system offers no help. An early effort at distributing land titles was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. An effort was made in the early 1990s to reallocate titles, but most people were given applications instead of titles. The applications are not binding in a court of law, making it difficult for victims of land disputes to fight their cases.
“I appeal to the authorities and the land title department to solve this mess for the people. Don’t let the rich people take land and leave the poor begging in the streets. We have to figure this out soon, because so much land is empty and many people want it,” Nil Nonn said.
Nam Tum said he will create lists of landless people in the province who would like to move to Samlot and a Kol Kroloy, a new district that will be created.
Although security in Samlot is still shaky, clearing the mines quickly is important for Battambang because of the district’s economic potential, Nam Tum said. The district’s proximity to Thailand, fertile land and gem stones make it promising.
Samlot district chief Hen Sophal, 54, wants to start moving his people back to Samlot in December.
The long-fought-over area was devastated by recent battles between government and opposition forces and strewn with mines. The district’s population of about 30,000 was displaced in neighboring districts and refugee camps in Thailand.
“I want to move my people back to the safe areas of the district and start getting ready to grow food for next year,” Hen Sophal said. “The main problems for us are land mines and food.”