Armed with guns and machetes, about 200 police officers and local officials stormed Keo Phos village in Preah Sihanouk province’s Stung Hav district earlier this month to evict 21 families from their homes.
Behind the phalanx of police and local government workers, noisy excavators and bulldozers drove in to flatten the homes and other structures on the 350-hectare site.
Three residents were detained for trying to protect their houses from the wrecking crews, but everyone else mostly stood silently, too scared to protest as the armed officers loaded their assault rifles to show they meant business.
“We implemented the verdict because the law determined so,” Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court director Mong Monichakrya said at the time, in defense of the eviction, even though the land dispute was in the hands of the Appeal Court.
Judge Monichakrya had already ruled that businessman and founder of Leo Beer, Cheam Phen, was the rightful owner of the farmland. And so had the Council of Ministers.
In a statement to the Preah Sihanouk court from the Council of Ministers, and signed by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, the council named Mr. Phen as the rightful owner of the disputed land—though what legal right the council had to do so is not clear.
Despite the forces lined up against them, the violent eviction was still a surprise to the residents of Keo Phos village. According to the law, no action can be taken until the appeal process has run its course—and the Keo Phos residents had appealed.
Asked why he had moved ahead despite the appeal, Judge Monichakrya said, at the time, that the party who sought implementation of the eviction verdict would have to pay damages if the Appeal Court overturned his ruling.
And that would seem to be the case now.
Two weeks after their eviction, Keo Phos residents are moving back onto their land—with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s very public endorsement.
“I heard that the case is pending at the Appeal Court, why did [Cheam Penh] have the right to demolish the houses…it’s still at the Appeal Court, and you implemented the verdict [from the provincial court],” Mr. Hun Sen said yesterday in a speech.
On Sunday, Mr. Hun Sen issued a statement overruling the Council of Minister’s letter signed by Mr. An, which attested to Mr. Phen’s ownership.
On Monday, Mr. Hun Sen also ordered well-known businessman and CPP Senator Mong Reththy to help rebuild the destroyed houses, and asked the residents—a total of 49 families including those who moved out before the eviction—to move back to their land.
After fighting his eviction by Mr. Phen and local officials for years, Keo Phos resident Chab Pring yesterday wanted more than just his land back.
“We want him [Mr. Phen] to be punished for demolishing our houses so he can learn a lesson of what the law means,” Mr. Pring said.
Neither Judge Monichakrya nor Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Sboang Sarath could be contacted for comment. Deputy governor Chev Kim Heng declined to comment.
Preah Sihanouk provincial police chief Tak Vanntha, who carried out the violent eviction, said that he was just following orders—and upholding the law.
“The court, the prosecutor and the deputy provincial governor gave us the order,” to evict the families, Mr. Vanntha said.
“As police, we have the role to implement the law, so if there’s a verdict, we implement it.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid group Cambodian Defenders Project, said that the provincial court’s verdict should never have been carried out while the case was still in the appeal process.
“The case was at the Appeal Court, so why did the lower court implement its suspended verdict? The implementation was unfair,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
Although Mr. Hun Sen, whose ruling party will soon contest a national election, has thrown his considerable influence behind the Keo Phos villagers’ cause, their ownership dispute still needs to be heard at the Appeal Court.
“There is a verdict from the lower court—which people lost—and they have to wait for the Appeal Court’s decisions,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
(Additional reporting by Denise Hruby)