Police and military police on Saturday torched 48 dwellings in Mondolkiri province’s Keo Seima district, accusing families living there of illegally settling in a protected area and clearing swathes of forested land for farming, officials and villagers said.
District Governor Sin Vanvuth said the dwellings were located within a 48-hectare area around Sre Preah commune’s O’Chra village and were burned to the ground because residents have repeatedly ignored warnings to cease clearing the protected forest.
“We burned the houses because they settled on state land. Authorities are not responsible for any damage to [the homeowners’] property because they settled on this land after the government issued Directive 01,” Mr. Vanvuth said.
The directive, which allowed him to burn the dwellings to the ground, the governor said, pertains to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 2012 land titling program, which was designed to speed up the issuing of land titles.
Mr. Vanvuth claimed the families whose homes he torched had only moved to the area two years ago from Kompong Cham, Prey Veng, Kratie and Takeo provinces.
“We informed them twice that they must stop clearing the land, but they ignored the warnings,” the governor said.
The area in question borders Khsim commune in Kratie province’s Snuol district, where last month local authorities set fire to 56 homes, similarly accusing families of moving into the area and illegally clearing more than 5,000 hectares of protected land.
Sok Rotha, Mondolkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said that the families had settled in Sre Preah commune in 2009 and that local authorities had permitted them to remain on the land.
“They may have no land titles, but they have been staying on the land for at least five years and this means they are living legally,” he said, adding that police also destroyed the villagers’ crops during Saturday’s fiery eviction.
A 57-year-old villager, who declined to give her name for fear of retribution, said that this was the third time in a month that police had come and burned down dwellings.
“I do not dare to return to the land now because we are afraid of the cruel actions of the police—they behave worse than the Pol Pot regime,” she said.