On the cusp of the rainy season, ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Chum district are ready to begin planting their subsistence crops, but scores of families cannot because their land dispute with a powerful businessman is in legal limbo.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said Wednesday that less than a third of the scores of Ekkapheap commune families involved in the case have planted on their disputed land, despite the fact that they are subsistence farmers without other ways to survive.
“Villagers want to plant crops on the disputed land where they have farmed for many years to support their families,” Pen Bonnar said.
“But court officials prohibited both sides of the land dispute from doing anything,” he said. “Those people feel afraid of being arrested if they are bold enough to plant on the land.”
Ratanakkiri Province Court Director Yar Narin, who was named a Khmer Rouge tribunal Supreme Court judge this week, said that he was in charge of the case, and that it would be unfair to allow the villagers to plant their crops.
“How can I allow one party to do anything on the land?” Yar Narin asked.
“I ordered both sides to stop work on the disputed land until we can find out who the real landowners are,” he said.
Provincial Court Prosecutor Mey Sokhan said he would be unable to remedy the villagers’ situation because the case is still unresolved.
Businessman Khit Sok Khay has followed court orders to suspend his work on the disputed land, which was granted to him as a land concession, he added.
Eng Chhay Eang, deputy chairman of the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes and a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker, said the villagers should be able to farm as usual despite the ongoing dispute.
He said that he would report the villagers’ plight to the authority chairman and to CPP Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, though the dispute has not yet officially been sent to the authority for investigation.