Fifty-two villagers in Siem Reap province are locked in a land dispute with local Buddhist monks who have laid claim to their land, which they hope to develop in order to turn their pagoda into a tourist attraction.
The monks at Wat Reachbo in Siem Reap district are backed by Mohanikaya sect Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, who says the land, which the villagers in Sala Kamroeuk commune have lived on since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, has belonged to the pagoda for hundreds of years.
“The land should belong to us legally because we lived here since 1979,” said villager representative Siv Tieng, 40. “The provincial and local authorities have not acted transparently, they threatened us that we would be handcuffed and jailed if we dared to protest,” she said.
Siv Tieng said appeals for help and protection have been sent to Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers, provincial officials and NGOs.
“Those monks want us to relocate without paying compensation. It is not fair,” she said.
Villager So Socheat, 23, said the dispute over eight hectares of land started in 2000, but intensified last month when Tep Vong released a religious “order” prohibiting villagers from protesting the pagoda’s land confiscation.
Chhoeng Bunchhea, Tep Vong’s cabinet chief, confirmed that the directive had been issued and said that the supreme patriarch needs to develop the 400-year-old pagoda, located on the outskirts of Siem Reap town, for tourism purposes, and requires the land to do so.
“We need the land back not for personal or individual interests but we are going to develop it for our culture and tradition,” he maintained.
Tep Vong is considering compensation for the dislocated families, he added.
Siem Reap district Governor Tep Bun Chhay said local authorities have not intimidated the villagers.
Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun said anyone living on the land for more than five years has a legal right to own it.
“The land was abandoned, so it became private state property,” he said.
“In this case the state is responsible for finding a proper and acceptable resolution.”