barkeo district, Ratanakkiri province – With his ink-blackened thumb, Chum Part signed the document over and over.
Like most other members of the ethnic Jarais who live in Chrong village, the father of eight and grandfather of two was unable to sign his name or read what the Khmer script on the paper said.
And like other villagers, Chum Part says he didn’t realize that the paper he was signing for himself, as well as for some of his fellow villagers, was a land contract that would hand over legal title for 1,250 hectares to an army general living in Phnom Penh.
The signing in 1997 was the second step in a process in which members of three hill tribe villages effectively sold potentially valuable land along National Road 19 about halfway between Banlung, the provincial capital, and the Vietnam border. Approximately 700 Jarai and Tampuan villagers are now fighting in provincial court to keep land they say they have lived on and farmed “since their ancestors.”
The case has received attention from Legal Aid of Cambodia, Adhoc, Oxfam Great Britain and Human Rights Watch. According to a briefing memo issued by the four groups, the case “addresses the issue of land rights for indigenous peoples in Cambodia…[and] the broader problem of unlawful seizures of land by powerful government officials.”
With more and more people moving to Ratanakkiri from lowland provinces in search of available land and natural resources, Cambodia’s indigenous hill tribes are being pressured or persuaded to hand over land. Recent years have seen an increase in disputes over land thought to be owned by hill tribe villagers, according to Hen Bakkong, vice director of the provincial department that handles land titles.
About 75 percent of the province’s 94,000 residents are ethnic hill tribe members. But the population of the province is expanding, partly because Khmers are increasingly moving to Ratanakkiri to work in mining, forestry and agriculture.
Hill tribe villagers—with their low or nonexistent level of education, sophistication and knowledge of the outside world—are very often the land sellers who become the victims, said Hen Bakkong.
“I have seen this before,” he said. “A serious problem [in Ratanakkiri] is that buyers don’t give the money that they promised to the sellers.”
Adding to the problem is that hill tribe villagers, with their communal sense of ownership for land, sometimes don’t understand the value of land. In some cases, hill tribe villagers don’t understand that when someone has given them money or gifts in exchange for land, that deal is forever.
“Sometimes they sell without thinking of the future, which is what traditionally happens to indigenous peoples around the world,” said an NGO official in Banlung. “Plot after plot of land along [the road to Stung Treng province and the road to Vietnam] is owned by Khmer families who have come up from the lowlands and gotten land somehow. They know the land along the road is worth more.”
Adding to the problem is the fact that there still isn’t a land law that recognizes the unique needs of hill tribe villagers. Many hill tribes practice a centuries-old technique of crop rotation in the fields, in which they work a part of their farmland each year while leaving the other parts fallow. A land ownership law was approved by the Council of Ministers last July, and is now awaiting consideration by the National Assembly.
Hen Bakkong said RCAF General Nuon Phea is now the legal title holder to the land claimed by the 700 Jarai and Tampuan villagers . A former commander of Military Region 1, Nuon Phea was transferred to a post at the Ministry of Defense in Phnom Penh in 1999 after Global Witness reported his alleged involvement in illegal logging in Ratanakkiri.
A letter written by Legal Aid of Cambodia said Nuon Phea’s claim to the land is “based on seriously illegal documents and transactions.”
Nuon Phea, who now works on borders issues for the Ministry of Defense, could not be reached for comment.
Since many members of the three villages, who say they were away working in the fields when district officials brought the documents to be signed, are now upset they are being told they agreed to sell the land in 1997.
In Chrong village, about 20 people thumbprinted the document for themselves and dozens of others, and in Chet village, about 10 thumbprinted for the majority of the village, according to the NGO briefing memo. In Klik village, most people thumbprinted for themselves.
Villagers complained to the provincial court in 1999 after realizing they had effectively sold their land to Nuon Phea two years earlier.
“Nhean Sary [Nuon Phea’s representative] came to the villages and said, ‘This is my land. You must leave,’” said Meas Klemsa, a provincial official for the human rights group Adhoc. “The people were amazed.”
Since then, the dispute has passed through a provincial land dispute commission and the National Land Dispute Committee without resolution. The Ratanakkiri provincial court began its investigation in January by calling villagers to the court in Banlung for questioning. The villagers say they did not have time to inform their lawyers at Legal Aid of Cambodia of the court date.
The court is expected to have another hearing within a month. If the villagers lose, a possible appeal would bring the case to Phnom Penh.
Working through Nhean Sary—a soldier in Ratanakkiri who says he makes about $18 a month from the government for tending a military rice field—Nuon Phea gained title after funneling $35,000 to district officials in 1997, according to Nhean Sary.
Earlier that year, Jarai people from Chrong village and Tampuan people from Klik and Chet villages signed and thumbprinted two sets of documents. The first set established and registered individual ownership to each five-hectare parcels of land—a procedure that enabled officials to bypass approval at the provincial level.
The second document—the sales contract—handed over title to Nuon Phea.
Villagers now say they didn’t understand what they were signing at the time. Most are illiterate and only a few understand spoken Khmer.
Nhean Sary argues that this case is not an abuse by a stereotypical land speculator. He says that the land contract was read aloud to the three villages by someone who spoke the village’s language. The villagers didn’t say anything in response, he said, so he assumes they understood what they were signing.
“I have a big problem with the land authority now, because I don’t know if they gave the money to the villagers,” he said.
The villagers also say they were coerced by district officials into putting their thumbprints on the documents. Villagers say they were given vague promises of a government development project, which they say has not materialized.
“Romam Thang [a Klik villager who is commune secretary] came to tell us that if we sign, then we will always get support from the district chief,” said Chum Part. “But he said if we don’t put our thumbs on the paper, then we won’t have land to live on and won’t get food and support from officials.”
Villagers say they never agreed to take money for their land and have not been given any cash. Many villagers say they only received 2 kg of salt per family.
Nhean Sary says he took $35,000 from Nuon Phea and gave it to district officials. A document shows that money was given in four installments in 1997 to Rocham Lay, deputy governor of the district, Len Noey, then-deputy district chief, and Ting Khamsath, the head of the district police.
Ting Khamsath said he took just $5,000 from Nhean Sary and “gave everything,” including four moto bikes and four tons of salt, to the villagers. He said he hasn’t worked for Nuon Phea since 1997, when he, Romam Thang and Rocham Ly persuaded the villagers to sign the documents.
Hen Bakkong said he believes that the $35,000 never made its way to the villagers. He said villagers shouldn’t complain about Nuon Phea, but should blame Ting Khamsath, Romam Thang and Rocham Ly.
Villagers expressed anger at the three men, who they called the “land authority.” But several Klik villagers, of which Romam Thang is a member, denied that Romam Thang wants to sell the land and blamed Ting Khamsath for deceiving them. Residents in all three villages said they are united in wanting to keep their land.
Nhean Sary said he knows Nuon Phea to be a kind, generous man. They consider each other brothers, and worked together in Ratanakkiri during the 1990s when they cut and sold logs to buyers in Vietnam, he says.
Like many top government officials in the province, Nuon Phea will turn the land into a hobby farm, perhaps growing coffee, cashews or rubber, according to Nhean Sary. He is not the rich and powerful man that villagers and provincial officials say he is, but only someone who wants to help villagers by giving them jobs on his farm, he said.
“All the poor people who go to his house, Nuon Phea always gives them money,” Nhean Sary said.
The provincial court’s investigating judge urged villagers to settle with Nuon Phea and told representatives from the village in January to consider accepting $4,000 from him for each village. The judge also heard Nhean Sary say that the sales agreement is valid.
According to the NGOs’ briefing memo, the judge asked villagers to gather sufficient evidence before the next hearing, or the case would be dismissed.
Nhean Sary said that if villagers want, Nuon Phea would be willing to give more money. Hen Bakkong said this is probably true.
“Thirty-five thousand dollars is not too much money for Nuon Phea,” said Hen Bakkong. “He is just spending for fun.”
Villagers said they have never met Nuon Phea in person. The general did not appear before the provincial land dispute commission, although he was called several times for a meeting. Last month at court, Nhean Sary appeared as Nuon Phea’s representative.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun, who is part Tampuan, said he “strongly believes” villagers when they say will not give up the land if they lose the court case. He said if the court issues a warrant ordering provincial authorities to use force to move the people off the land, then he would refuse to comply.
For now, villagers worry and wait for the next court hearing. One villager said the land dispute is all his village talks about these days. When others were asked what their plan is if they are forced to leave the land, they either said they didn’t know or said they would continue fighting.
“These villagers will live here forever and ever. When they die, they will be buried here,” said one Klik villager. “If they try to force us to leave, we would not agree. We would fight together. The people would fight. They are willing to die.” (Additional reporting by Phann Ana)