Hun Sen Gives Hope to Villagers in Land Fight

Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen was mocked for claiming in a speech on August 18 that he was unaware of a land dispute in Kratie province’s Snuol district over which villagers had repeatedly petitioned his cabinet.

But Mr. Hun Sen’s admission that he was unaware of one of the country’s most high-profile land disputes, and an ensuing speech in which he blasted his underlings for failing to settle conflicts across the country, seems to have given hope to some villagers.

Mao Chann, a 43-year-old villager from Battambang province, decided to travel to Phnom Penh last month after watching Mr. Hun Sen’s speech.

“I watched TV and saw Samdech Hun Sen say that he hadn’t received petitions so we came to Phnom Penh to voice our concerns,” said Mr. Chhan, who along with hundreds of other residents in Kors Kralor district is feuding with businessman Song Thorn over 612 hectares of land.

Mr. Chann is also one of about 100 villagers from Pailin, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces who have been camped out at Wat Chas in Chroy Changva district over the past two weeks in an attempt to petition national-level authorities to intercede in their cases.

And their efforts seem to be paying off, according to Mr. Chhan. He claimed that Battambang provincial Governor Chan Sophal announced Monday that the contested land would finally be demarcated for his community, which has been demanding intervention since 2006.

“We are very happy because we tried to protest at the provincial level but were never successful. But after hearing Hun Sen’s speech, we hoped he would sort it out,” Mr. Chhan said, adding that the villagers would return to the capital if their demands were not fully met.

Mr. Sophal, the provincial governor, said by telephone Monday that he could not guarantee that land would be measured off for the villagers, but that “experts are working on this issue and we asked them [villagers] for their documents.”

The visiting protesters from Kratie province, whose conflict drew last month’s comments from Mr. Hun Sen, were rewarded over the weekend for their persistent protesting. Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim announced Saturday that the government would take back the disputed land from South Korean-owned Horizon Agriculture Development and give it to the villagers.

Vuon Hoeun, a former Khmer Rouge soldier involved in a land dispute in Pailin province, is also among those staying at Wat Chas. Though his community has not heard from authorities, he too said he felt hopeful about a possible solution following the prime minister’s call for local officials to take action.

“Only Hun Sen can help us…because we saw him talking through social media about disputed land and calling for authorities to solve the problem” he said.

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