The Phnom Penh Municipality’s move to evict villagers from the island across from the NagaCorp casino violates the 2001 Land Law, according to a lawyer working with the US-backed Public Interest Legal Advocacy Project on behalf of the villagers.
“We’re very concerned about the possibility of a forced eviction,” Brian Rohan, PILAP’s technical advisor, said Sunday. “We believe it’s contrary to the law.”
Early this month, City Hall ordered 134 villagers to vacate their homes on Koh Pich by January. Responding to villagers’ protests, Municipal Deputy Governor Pa Socheatevong defended the order, saying the island was state property, and thus the city had the right to evict the residents.
But Rohan said that although Article 58 of the 1993 Constitution defines islands as state property, it does not clearly define them as either public or private.
The 2001 Land Law was created to clarify what falls under state public property, he said. Under Article 15 of that law, islands are not included on a list of state-owned properties, he said, and therefore, villagers should be entitled to land ownership.
Even though the villagers at Koh Pich do not have land titles, they can still lawfully possess the land, Rohan added.
“As long as you’ve been there five years before the enactment of the Land Law in 2001, and it was continuous and nonviolent, then you have a right to the land,” he said. “These people have been living there since 1982.”
After several protests earlier this month, the government offered compensation to the villagers for their land. But when they refused the offer last week, Pa Socheatevong responded by warning that “if the villagers do not want [it], city hall will take their land anyway.”
The case has prompted a group of NGOs called the Housing Rights Task Force, which includes PILAP and the UN High Commission for Human Rights, to help the villagers.
Pa Socheatevong said by phone Sunday that he is not aware that PILAP lawyers are now representing the villagers, and declined to comment further.
The Housing Rights Task Force plans to give city and local government officials a memorandum in the next few days detailing the legal rights of families on Koh Pich. “We are going to City Hall and saying you need to back off this forced eviction,” Rohan said.
Canadia Bank, one of the private companies interested in developing the island, has already made unspecified compensation offers to some villagers.
Rohan said his group does not believe the villagers are being offered enough money for their land.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)