Over 150 Stieng ethnic minority families in Kompong Cham province claim that a local company and RCAF soldiers have cleared approximately 1,000 hectares of their land, a human rights worker and a village representative said Friday.
However, a government official claimed that 500 hectares of the land in question was granted to little-known local company BG Mex Co Sothy Development Ltd in a land concession.
Neang Sovath, chief of Adhoc’s Kompong Cham office, said Friday that the land in Memot district’s Toanloung commune belongs to the Stieng villagers who have cultivated the land since 1979 and are legally entitled to it.
“Soldiers cleared the villagers’ crops to make way and claim that everything is theirs,” he said.
Voan Keau, 38, a representative of the villagers, said that in February more than 50 RCAF soldiers began clearing the land and destroying crops.
“We confronted, but not violently, the company and soldiers five times. They stopped and then they continued clearing more and more land,” he said, adding that BG Mex employees told the villagers that the soldiers were working for the company.
Voan Keau said he was in Phnom Penh on Friday to deliver the villagers’ complaints to the government and rights groups.
Memot District Governor Choek Sa An said by telephone, while driving back from a visit to the disputed land, that BG Mex was granted a concession for the land by the government to plant rubber and cashew trees, but that it has not begun clearing land yet. He said he suspects the villagers are working for an unknown party that is using them to take the land. “Those people seemingly work for another party who wants to get that land, which is why they used villagers as a tool to protest against [BG Mex],” he said, adding that he doubts the villagers are really ethnic minorities.
He declined to comment about RCAF soldiers’ alleged involvement.
Choek Sa An said that he had already negotiated with the villagers about the land, but they still insisted on filing a complaint.
“Those villagers cannot be considered as legal land owners,” he said.