kraya commune, Kompong Thom province – Almost half a year after armed security personnel forcibly evicted villagers in Banteay Ra’Ngeang community to make way for a rubber company, the more than 600 resettled families here said they feared for their futures, as they still lacked promised farmland and struggled to earn a living.
“Here my standard of living is low…. At the old village I had a 30-by-500-meter plot of land. We could grow cassava and rice. In particular, we could collect wood to make charcoal,” Oun Rien, a 45-year-old mother of three, said Wednesday.
With their farmland gone, their monthly income reduced by two-thirds to around $23 and their rice stocks depleted, the family now faces acute poverty, she said.
“Now we lack food. I have to ask my children to go and find bamboo shoots. A kilo earns us 1,000 riel,” Ms Rien said, “We only earn money to buy rice every day. Sometimes we have money for only a kilo of rice.”
Ms Rien’s family was among the 602 families forced to move to a scrub forest area in Thma Samleang village, after nearly 200 armed security personnel descended on Banteay Ra’Ngeang community on Dec 8 to evict the villagers.
At the time, authorities said the families–most of whom are disabled RCAF veterans who moved into Banteay Ra’Ngeang during the past five years–had to vacate 8,100 hectares granted to Vietnamese rubber company Tin Bien.
Officials had promised families a hectare of farmland at a resettlement site before the start of the rainy season.
Villager Mey Veng, a 53-year-old RCAF veteran, said that following the resettlement, villagers spent two months clearing land for housing, transforming the new site into a landscape of parched sand and charred tree stumps, dotted with dozens of small wooden houses and young fruit trees. He added that villagers had dug most of the wells in the new village, which also lacked electricity or a school.
But a lack of sources of income in Thma Samleang was taking its toll on families and forcing villagers to work as day laborers outside the village, sometimes for Tin Bien rubber company, or to live off collecting wild vegetables, he said, adding that some days villagers could not find any work at all.
Out of desperation, three men had gone back to the old village in March to try and plant their fields but in a confrontation security forces had opened fire on them, Mr Veng said. “They were shot, some in the stomach, some in their legs. My nephew got shot in the stomach,” he said, adding the men had still managed to avoid arrest and they recovered with their families living in another province.
Villager Buo Chhan, 55, said the future looked grim if the community did not receive farmland soon. “They promised us a new plot of land. We don’t know where it is and when we will get it,” he said.
“Since we came here life, is more difficult…. If they are late to provide us with land we will miss this growing season,” Mr Chhan said, “If we don’t get a harvest we will suffer next year” from a lack of food.
Deputy provincial governor Uch Sam On acknowledged on Thursday that authorities did not know when the farmland could be allocated, saying only, “We are willing to provide them one hectare of land soon this year.”
Mr Sam On said authorities needed time to free up farmland for the families and officials were now planning to take nearby land from around 200 families, which he claimed were illegally occupying the area, and give this land to the families evicted from Banteay Ra’Ngeang community.
Another difficulty, Mr Sam On said, was that provincial officials had to cooperate with Ministry of Agriculture officials when allocating the land. “We are waiting for them to work with us on this issue,” he added.
Nonetheless, Mr Sam On said authorities were not at fault and he claimed authorities were forced to quickly evict the villagers following violent protests in November, giving officials no time to prepare farmland for the evicted villagers.
During these protests villagers torched several police and company vehicles and local authorities responded by arresting six villagers.
“If they had agreed to move…we would have already prepared land for them,” he said.
Chan Soveth, senior monitor for local rights group Adhoc, said the eviction case in Kraya commune exemplified all of the worst aspects of the government’s forced eviction measures, commonly applied throughout the country.
“This case is very important among all eviction cases in the country, [because] they arrested many people, shot and injured people and especially, the villagers did not get the land promised by the authorities,” he said.
“Authorities everywhere never pay attention to prepare for the relocation of villagers. This affects their human rights and makes them poorer and poorer,” Mr Soveth said. “We had requested [Kompong Thom] authorities to delay eviction until they prepared new land for them but they did not listen.”