As about 100 villagers in Battambang province blocked the road to their district office on Monday and demanded the removal of a local official accused of pillaging a community forest, authorities took the opportunity to raze their homes, an official said.
The 1,324-hectare Ta Oeun community forest in Rokha Kiri district was established by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2002, and intended to be a source of food for about 250 families in the area. Since then, however, it has been heavily logged.
While authorities say the community is to blame, residents point the finger at the Forestry Administration, and on Monday called for the removal of its local division chief, You Panhavoan.
“We asked that Mr. You Panhavoan be removed because he doesn’t protect the villagers’ interests. He allows wood dealers to fell trees, but when villagers come to find firewood, he threatens us with prison,” said Kim Sreng, one of the protesters.
“Authorities delegated the land to be a community forest, but now they have cleared nearly half the area and made it private property,” he said, adding that some of the families were also asking for part of the cleared land to be returned to them for planting cassava.
Seng Dy, a deputy district governor, confirmed receipt of a petition from the villagers, and said that while they were protesting, 60 military police and Forestry Administration officials went to destroy several dozen homes situated just inside the Ta Oeun forest.
“The military police and forestry officials burned down four old houses and removed 35 shelters because they were illegally built on the community forest land,” she said, adding that the village had started to creep onto designated forest land, where building is not permitted, in 2013.
Srun Put, another of the protesters, said the group blocked the road to the district office with a tractor until 5 p.m. He said he had been informed that authorities used chainsaws to destroy the 35 shelters.
“It’s worse than the Pol Pot regime,” Mr. Put said “We will not stop protesting against authorities until we reach a solution.”
Mr. Panhavoan could not be reached for comment.