The long-running land dispute involving ethnic minority tribes in Ratanakkiri province and a high-ranking general accused of grabbing their land will move to its final stage today as the Appeals Court decides whether to invalidate the commander’s 245 land title certificates.
If the Appeals Court judges decide in favor of the hill tribes and cancel the land certificates, almost 1,000 ethnic Jarai and Tampuan villagers in Barkeo district would then have a chance to lay claim to the 1,250 hectares of disputed land.
“We do not think we are going to lose this case,” said Ea Sopheap, the Legal Aid of Cambodia attorney working on the case. “We want the judge to invalidate the 245 land titles.”
The case started in 1997, when Barkeo district officials allegedly told a group of Jarai and Tampuan villagers that the government needed their land for a development project.
The officials allegedly tricked the villagers into signing over their land to RCAF General Nuon Phea, who was then the commander of Military Region 1. The families received 2 kg of salt for the 1,250 hectares that they signed over to the general, the villagers maintain.
In 1999, a large number of Jarai and Tampuan villagers living on the land complained to the Ratanakkiri provincial court that only a few villagers transferred the legal title of their land to Nuon Phea. They also accused the general of falsifying land claims.
The Ratanakkiri court ruled against the ethnic tribes in 2001 and granted Nuon Phea the legal land titles for the 1,250 hectares, which are part of the tribe’s ancestral land.
Lawyers from Legal Aid of Cambodia filed an appeal, which was partially heard—but not decided—by the Appeals Court in March 2002.
Before the court had a chance to render a decision, King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened in the case. At the time, Hun Sen approved a $35,000 compensation for Nuon Phea to hand over legal titles back to the ethnic hill tribe members.
King Sihanouk during March 2002 also met with the ethnic villagers and stated that he would help mediate the dispute.
The government previously transferred Nuon Phea from Ratanakkiri to a position in the Ministry of Defense in the capital after the environmental watchdog Global Witness spotlighted Nuon Phea’s alleged involvement in illegal logging in Ratanakkiri.
Today’s case will not decide ownership of the land but could invalidate the pre-existing 245 land titles sold by the hill tribe members who were allegedly swindled out of the land by Nuon Phea.
The Jarai hill tribe villagers, who live in Chrong village, and the Tampuan hill tribe members, who live in Chet and Klik villages, have been living in the area for generations, according to a 2001 briefing memo from Legal Aid of Cambodia.
The tribal communities survive primarily through sustainable agricultural practices, and many tribal members do not speak Khmer.
The Tampuan hill tribes are the largest ethnic tribal group in Cambodia, with an estimated 15,000 living in the mountainous regions of the northeast.
Krung, Kra Chok, Kavet, Jarai and Brao are also ethnic minority tribes that live in Ratanakkiri, Mondolkiri, Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.