Landless Continue Flowing Into Phnom Penh

Beneath the late-morning shade of a tree in view of the National Assembly, Sok Heng sat nursing her child and lamenting her luck. Part of a group representing more than 100 families from areas around Poipet, Sok Heng had come to complain of powerful men razing her home.

It is becoming a semi-annual tradition at the park. Distraught and landless, whole families or their representatives will pile into trucks in their home provinces and make their way to Phnom Penh, eventually setting up camp beneath the trees, hoping the national authorities can succeed where their local authorities have failed.

“I was shocked,” said the 34-year-old mother of two. “When I returned from the market, I found my hut and fruit trees destroyed by policemen.

“Now my children sleep under this tree,” she said, pointing up. “And today, my baby is getting sick.”

Sok Heng and those who came with her are part of a migration of landless peasants, pushed from their land by entrepreneurs who continue to scramble for lucrative property for casino construction.

Poipet continues to draw casino investment, fueled by the seemingly endless streams of Thai gamblers who zip over the border to Banteay Meanchey province for a day or a weekend to escape Thailand’s gambling prohibitions.

Provincial officials there are either unwilling or unable to stop the continued land grabs, often sending the landless to Phnom Penh seeking aid. Once in Phnom Penh, they are usually told to return to Banteay Mean­chey and air their grievances with the very officials who sent them south in the first place.

“We are from the jungle; we are hopeless,” Sok Heng said.

She and the other families had cleared that land themselves, she said, hoping to put a life together in a part of the country that has seen much war and where land mines must be cleared one at a time by those who would reclaim the land.

“We decided to clear the land, to do farming and to build a hut to stay in. But now the land in Poipet has increased in value, and the authorities want to sell it to casino owners. So that is why they chased us out,” Sok Heng said.

Poipet Governor Sar Chamrong denied any wrongdoing by provincial authorities. The land where the families were staying already belonged to a local businessman in Banteay Meanchey, he said.

In February last year, he said, the provincial court ordered the farmers to vacate the land and return it to the businessman. “But the people did not agree.

“We asked them to leave peacefully, by providing new land 20 meters by 30 meters for each family located in O’Russei commune.

However, they stayed put, and now it is unclear who will be given land, he said.

Camped near her at the park were other representatives of other families, these from Kompong Cham. They had come to protest the arrest of one representative of nearly 200 families who had been cheated out of land.

Kai Vanthoth, who spoke for 191 families fighting for 646 hectares of land, was arrested by police in Rokapra-am commune, Tbong Khmum district on May 3, said Math Chu, a representative of the families.

Hun Sen had promised the land to local farmers. Instead, he said, it had been taken over by provincial authorities.

Mao Phirun, second deputy governor for Kompong Cham, said Monday that the authorities would give absolutely no land to the protesters. None of them own the land, he said.

“They have no land. They are Islamic people,” he said. “Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he would return this land to people who have been farming on the land. Now the land owners are doing the farming.

“If anyone is unhappy with the provincial decision, he must deal with the court,” Mao Phirun said.

Sok Heng said she and the others would complain to the National Assembly, the Senate and the prime minister.

“But first,” she said, “I have to go find medicine for my baby.”

 

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