Land-Grab Victims Waiting for Resolution

The hundreds of villagers who have been camped out in the park in front of the National As­sembly to protest land grabs come from different provinces, but their stories are similar.

They talk of being forced off their land and beaten. They have been sleeping in the park and re­lying on relatives in Phnom Penh to give them food. Some have nothing to eat.

They were angry enough to trav­el from Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey to ask for help from the government, but they are too scared to go home.

“People will stay here until an acceptable solution is made,” said Sy Vannai, 34, a cafe owner from the border town of O’Smach in Ban­teay Meanchey who has been here for a week. “But people don’t want to go back because they are afraid of being killed.”

After traveling to Phnom Penh several times and being disappointed on each trip, the villagers’ concerns might finally be heard.

Members from the National Assembly and the Senate are scheduled to meet with the villagers at 8 am today in the park to discuss land dispute issues.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy also is scheduled to meet today with the villagers to discuss their concerns.

Bun Vytho, 36, said everything in O’Smach was destroyed and his wife was beaten in the land grab by local authorities and soldiers in September. He said one man from their village committed suicide, hanging himself after he lost his land. The O’Smach villagers said the land was sold to businessmen who will build a cas­ino and market.

Military Region 4 officials have denied any involvement in the O’Smach eviction, but confirmed that provincial officials had or­dered the land cleared.

Kem Sokha, chairman of the Senate Human Rights Com­mittee, visited O’Smach to find out more about the dispute. He predicted the land would be hand­ed over to the bus­inessmen. “Government officials only think about their benefit,” he said.

The villagers have asked help from King Norodom Sihanouk, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top-level officials.

Last week, King Sihanouk gave 20 kg of rice to each person as well as 40,000 riel for each adult and 10,000 for each child.

Residents of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey province also have been camped out in front of the Assembly. About 250 families from Poipet were kicked off their land in January after the provincial governor said the land belonged to the military.

Kan Keun, a Poipet local, said he was arrested last month and jailed for four days.

Since January, the villagers said they have sent 13 letters of complaint to the Ministry of Defense, the Council of Ministers and other officials.

Mom Omrith, 41, said she has been to Phnom Penh nine times to protest the land grab, most recently arriving Sept 26.   Gov­ernment officials “pro­mise to solve the problem, but actually they are just trying to get us to leave the park,” she said.

In addition to Oddar Mean­chey and Banteay Meanchey, land disputes have occurred in Kompong Cham, Siem Reap, Battambang, Koh Kong, Kom­pong Speu and Kandal.

Almost half of the 262 complaints that the National Assemb­ly Human Rights Committee received in the first six months of this year involved land disputes.

In May, Deputy Prime Mini­ster Sar Kheng promised protesters he would help bring an “im­mediate” end to the land disputes spreading across the country.

Hun Sen also told new governors at a seminar that seized land should be returned to the people.

Chan Soveth, program manager for local human rights group Adhoc, said government officials must meet with villagers to come up with a solution to the land disputes.

“People are just blaming each other now,” he said.

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