Land Squeeze Leaves Body Unburied in R’kiri

There is land for the living and land for the dead, and Tampuon minority villagers say the land squeeze is so acute in Ratanak­kiri’s Banlung district that they have a three-day old corpse on their hands and nowhere safe to put it.

“We do not have the land to bury bodies anymore,” said Sul village chief Seng Thung, a Tam­puon who also serves as CPP commune councillor in Yeak Lom commune. “The villagers can­not stand the smell.”

Seng Thung and another CPP Tampuon village chief, Bun Tean, of Labor village, said they went into hiding on Tuesday after a 2 pm burial ceremony ran afoul of the police, who have a warrant to arrest anyone who tries to bury their dead on four hectares of contested land in Yeak Lom commune.

But, Bun Tean said, the land in question has served as a Tam­puon burial ground since 1979. “We want our land back because the land belongs to our ancestors,” he said, adding that he is not sure what to do with the body, now encased in a coffin.

Ratanakkiri Provincial Court says the land legally belongs to Mom Saroeun, director of the provincial finance department.

“Those who oppose the warrant must be arrested and de­tained,” said provincial Judge An Samnang, who said he issued the warrant. He maintains that Mom Saroeun bought the land four years ago and now has legal title to it. Villagers have been given another plot of land for burials, but they are too lazy to walk to it, he said.

Seng Thung said the problem is not laziness but fear: Villagers believe that a swarm of angry spirits has been wreaking havoc on them because they have not respected traditional burial rites, which hold that all bodies must be buried in the same place. “People died after they buried bodies at a different location,” he said.

Banlung district governor Chhum Nhel said that the new, officially sanctioned graveyard is about 500 meters from the old one and that just three bodies have been interred there.

According to Chhum Nhel, who is Khmer, burying bodies at the new location would not conflict with indigenous mores. “Someone must have incited them” to complain, he said.

Tum Sinat, director of the provincial department of land management, said that his team is investigating the case. “Graveyards are state public land,” he said. “The land cannot be sold.” Mom Saroeun declined to comment Tuesday.

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