Representatives of 163 families embroiled in a long-running land dispute in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district met with officials from the Agriculture Ministry on Wednesday to ask why the ministry issued a letter last week requesting that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court hold off on allocating nearly a hectare of land to the families.
Following a protracted dispute with a businesswoman, the municipal court awarded the families the 9,982-square-meter plot in 2007, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011.
The court planned to send a deputy prosecutor to divide the land among the families on March 12, but after receiving a letter from the Agriculture Ministry, he decided to wait.
Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for the ministry, said during Wednesday’s meeting that Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun issued the letter on March 11 because the ministry owned land in the area of the contested plot and should have been consulted before it was promised to the families.
“The court should have invited us to join the implementation, because the Agriculture Ministry also owns land [in the area] too,” Mr. Sophalleth told three representatives of the awardees.
The spokesman added that the ministry was worried that its land could be mistakenly given to the families or vice versa.
“The Ministry of Agriculture still has land there and we have to protect our property,” he said. “So please, provide any documents you have to us and if [the land] overlaps, we can negotiate later.”
According to its letter, the ministry initially owned a 28,904-square-meter plot in Sen Sok. In June 2009, it swapped 11,701 square meters of that land with the Kim Hap Construction firm, which built a new machinery department building for the ministry in return.
Pring Socheat, one of the representatives who joined the meeting, said she would go to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today to again ask officials there for help allocating the land.
“After today, I understand [the ministry] simply wants to participate in the implementation, so I will ask the court to do it again,” she said.
Nan Ony, a legal officer for the Housing Rights Task Force who was also present at the meeting, said the discussion did not make the situation any clearer.
“If the ministry only wants to join with the implementation, that is fine,” Mr. Ony said.
“But the way I heard what [Mr. Sophalleth] said in the meeting, it means the villagers’ land is the Ministry of Agriculture’s land.”