NGO: Military Torched Villagers’ Houses

More than 50 soldiers in Udong District allegedly burned down houses and threw explosives at villagers on Thursday in an attempt to end a long-running land dispute between the military and villagers in Kompong Speu province, hu­man rights workers said Sunday.

The soldiers, who were connected with the Thmat Pong Military School, were reported to have burned down 12 houses and to have thrown dynamite to scare people from Po village, a disputed area the military claims as its land, Adhoc Investigator Chan Soveth said.

No one was injured in the incident, he said.

Chan Soveth’s report of the incident differs from that of a military official in Kompong Speu, who said the villagers set their own houses on fire and blamed the soldiers for it because they lost ownership of the land during a recent provincial court case.

“Fifty-five families from two villagers have encroached on the land which belongs to the military school,” Kompong Speu Mili­tary Police Commander Men Siborn said.

At least 20 villagers with knives and axes threatened the soldiers  and frightened them, Men Si­born said. The troops fired a few shots into the air and set off the dynamite to scare the villagers, he said.

The military and villagers have been arguing over ownership of the Thmat Pong Military School land since 1998, co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath said. Although the prince had not received any reports about the alleged torching of houses in the village, he said he was aware of the dispute.

Villagers started moving into Thmat Pong Military School after the military constructed a new barracks in the area, and while previous commanders permitted villagers to live there, some re­cent commanders did not, the prince said.

“It is hard to settle these matters because the villagers have certificates of ownership issued from village chiefs, but the certificates are not valid,” he said.

Land ownership disputes such as this are not uncommon and the Ministry of Defense has “many” cases of civilians asking for land which the military owns and uses, Prince Sirirath said.

Officials from the Cambodian Human Rights Action Com­mittee—an umbrella group representing 18 NGOs—as well as from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights are traveling to Udong district today to investigate the case, CHRAC and UN officials said Sunday.


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