Villagers in land disputes turned away at military base gates
kompong speu province, Phnom Sruoch District – Prime Minister Hun Sen kicked off two weeks of multinational peacekeeping exercises in Kompong Speu province on Saturday with the pomp of a military marching band and the help of a well-rehearsed parachute jump.
The field exercises, which end July 30, are the latest in the US-sponsored Global Peace Operations Initiative, an effort to train foreign troops in UN peacekeeping standards. Officers from 16 countries began two weeks of computer-simulated command post exercises in Phnom Penh on July 12.
As troops from nine nations began the military exercises in Kompong Speu, nearby villagers involved in land disputes with the Defense Ministry were denied access to the ACO Tank Command headquarters, where they had sought to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen and ask for his intervention in the dispute.
Human Rights Watch has denounced the military training exercises, claiming they lend legitimacy to a military establishment accused of human rights violations and are occurring at the scene of a long-neglected land grab.
The exercises were nevertheless a high-water mark for US-Cambodian military ties, which were severed by US lawmakers as a result of the bloody street battles among political factions in Phnom Penh in 1997 and only cautiously restored in 2005.
Dressed in army fatigues and sporting his general’s five stars on the grounds of the Tank Command headquarters, the prime minister called the event “a new page for the integration of Cambodia in the region and the world.
“Cambodia has turned itself from a country that used to receive blue helmet peacekeeping forces into a country able to send its blue helmet forces to help keep peace in other countries,” he said. “This event makes Cambodia a lead country in the region on global peacekeeping operations, especially in demining.”
Cambodia has sent deminers to Chad, the Central African Republic, and the Sudan, and is preparing to send more to Lebanon.
“We have created a quick-reaction unit of military forces,” General Tea Banh, the Defense Minister, said in prepared remarks. “That means that whenever there are demands or suggestions made by the United Nations, with approval from the Cambodian government, for any mission in any country, the forces will be sent in two weeks.”
The US has billed the training exercises as a chance for Cambodia to progress to the next stage of peacekeeping, beyond demining and protection. The field exercises will include training on running roadside checkpoints, patrolling, securing disarmament areas and distribution sites, convoy operations and conducting a cordon and search.
“To accomplish and maintain international peace and security, today’s peacekeepers must undertake a wide variety of complex tasks, from helping support the building of sustainable institutions of governance, to human rights monitoring, to security sector reform,” said Major General Peter Pawling, formerly of the Hawaii Air National Guard and now at the US Pacific Command in Hawaii. General Pawling accompanied 136 soldiers from the Utah Army National Guard to Cambodia.
This month’s exercises are designed to “help international forces deploy anywhere in the world with mission benchmarks everyone is trained to and understands,” he said.
Since 2007, GPOI exercises have taken place in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Mongolia. Dubbed Angkor Sentinel 10, this month’s GPOI exercises are the first in Cambodia.
After the speeches, soldiers from Cambodia and the eight other countries taking part in the field exercises, more than 500 in all, marched past the prime minister in formation to the tunes of a military marching band.
Cambodian troops from the 911th Airborne Infantry Brigade spiraled down in the breeze, each with the national flag of one of the participating countries streaming behind him, before landing to applause.
A few kilometers off, but a world away, villagers in Moha Saing commune who watched the paratroopers make their slow dissent were less impressed.
“We really resent seeing the military exercise take place on disputed land where poor farmers have been battling for decades for the rights to use the land for planting rice,” Khieu Chhorm said after the ceremonies were over.
Mr Chhorm represents hundreds of families who claim that RCAF built the base in the middle of land they had farmed for generations before the rise of the Khmer Rouge and again since the fall of the Pol Pot regime in 1979.
“The United States has spent a lot of money to support and sponsor this event but I wonder why this donor country doesn’t make a thorough investigation of the profile of this land,” Mr Chhorm said. “Why do they just donate and help the land grabber?”
The US paid for the $1.8 million peacekeeper training center inside the base.
The land disputes at the ACO Tank Command headquarters briefly featured in a US State Department human rights report for 2007. The US Embassy has also said it “thoroughly and rigorously vetted” all participants in the exercises.
Prak Sokonn, secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, accused the villagers of encroaching on state land. He said earlier this month that the exercises would be taking place far from any land in dispute.
Svay You, another village representative from Moha Saing commune, insisted that the land was all theirs before the tank command moved in to its first few square kilometers in 1993.
He said the villagers paid the base little mind until soldiers started asking for annual payments in 1998 to let them keep farming–anywhere from $5 to $50 depending on the size of their fields.
“It was an unofficial payment because it was not on the record,” Mr You said. “They went door to door to each villager’s home and collected the money.”
He said the villagers finally decided to stop paying in 2002 and filed their first complaint with local rights group Adhoc the next year. They have also filed their complaints with provincial and national authorities since, he added, to no avail.
Hearing of Mr Hun Sen’s visit, Mr You said he and a group of fellow villagers attempted to attend Saturday’s ceremony to share their concerns with the prime minister himself but were turned back at the gate because they had no invitations.
“Resolution has never been made in favor of the poor farmers like us who depend only on farming rice and other crops to support our families,” he said.
He said the tank command now occupies about 500 square km of their farmland, only 80 hectares of which they’re still allowed access to.
While some families have moved away for lack of land, he said most have struggled to make do with less.
“Our situation is getting worse and we have been facing a lot of difficulties,” he said.
Provincial authorities, appeared divided yesterday on where the dispute stood.
“The land conflict has been resolved. Don’t listen to [them],” provincial governor Kang Heang said by telephone yesterday.
However, Vann Sokha, secretary-general for the provincial government, said the villagers had been allowed to keep farming on most of the land on the base though they had no legal claim to it and that the dispute had been referred on to the Defense Ministry for resolution. A defense ministry spokesman was unavailable.