Poor Farmers Fighting to Keep Their Land

It was 1979 when Um Thon was assigned a plot of marshy land in what is now Russei Keo district, along with five of his comrades in a communist-organized rice planting brigade known as a “Solidarity Team.”

Though the muddy land lacked water, electricity or an access road, Um Thon, now 64, said the day in 1989 when he finally received a title to the land from district officials was one of the happiest of his life.

Last week, Um Thon showed receipts from the taxes he dutifully paid to the state during those years, documents addressed to “a lover of the nation.”

Yet documents from the past year reveal that the government in 1992 resold the same land they gave to Um Thon and scores of other families, without informing any of the original landholders.

A court ruling late last month upheld the rights of those who bought the land in 1992.

The government no longer recognizes the titles it awarded to villagers in 1989, Um Thon said. Government officials say they are willing to offer those villagers a fraction of the land they claim, a proposal they have rejected.

And after more than two decades of loyalty to his government, Um Thon said the authorities have betrayed him.

“Now the land price is rising, and they grabbed it from us. I will not agree,” he said.

A 1991 census conducted by the Phnom Penh municipality found that 77 families lived in Spean Kpuos village, about 10 km north of central Phnom Penh, according to a May 20, 2003, letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen from Chhuon Sothy, director of the municipal department of construction, urbanization and land management. Each family had a title to about 1 hectare of land, issued and signed by Ung Khem, then-agriculture bureau chief of Russei Keo district.

In 1992, the government par­celed the land into hundreds of 20-meter-by-30-meter plots and offered them for sale to government officials for $50 each, according to the letter.

According to a report from City Hall, municipal officials issued 748 titles to new buyers. The titles did not specify which plots of land the purchasers now owned.

In a handwritten note scribbled on Chhuon Sothy’s letter dated May 23, Hun Sen criticized the haphazard sale of the plots.

“Selling land and issuing a [title] only on paper without a specific plot is so complicated a problem,” Hun Sen wrote. “The municipal authorities must be responsible to solve this problem.”

Some of those buyers, many of whom intended to build houses on the site, visited their new land shortly after the 1992 purchase—much to the shock of the families already farming and living there.

“One man pointed to my land, telling me that it belongs to him,” recalled Duong Sakhan, 47, last week. “I told him, ‘Hey! It is my land. I would not leave. You have to leave!’”

Villagers protested to municipal officials, who put an indefinite freeze on housing developments in Spean Kpuos.

With the security of their claim on the land appearing doubtful, 16 farming families sold their land—a total of 27 hectares—to Sok Im, wife of Anco Brother Company owner Kok An,  in 1996 and 1997. The certificate verifying her $600,000 purchase of the land was signed by then-governor Hok Lundy, said Long Norin, Sok Im’s lawyer. She bought the land at Hok Lundy’s suggestion, he said.

“All the land has a certificate from Hok Lundy,” Long Norin said last week. “Every level from the commune to the municipality recognized it.”

Last month, Chhuon Sothy refuted the lawyer’s claim that Sok Im’s purchase was legally recognized. “Sok Im bought the land without any permission from authorities, and now she wants the land back because the land price increased,” he said.

In December 2002, then-governor Chea Sophara wrote a letter to the director of City Land Management and the Russei Keo district governor, ordering the officials not to confiscate land from the original farmers.

“The Municipality is not involved with the confiscation of this land for its development project,” Chea Sophara wrote, adding that City Hall would recognize any claims to the land that could be verified with a legal document.

Yet on May 14 of this year, Municipal Court Judge Tan Sena­rong issued a decision affirming Sok Im’s ownership and specifically overriding any dissenting decision from City Hall, Long Norin said.

In protest, the 283 government families who had plots on the 27 hectares that were sold by farmers to Sok Im took to the streets of Russei Keo late last month demanding the land be returned. Their demands were supported by the Council of Ministers, which issued a statement May 30, ordering Sok Im to abandon the land without compensation and allow Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema to give it back to the government families.

The letter, signed by Under­secretary of State Bun Uy, forbade authorities from issuing a land title to Sok Im. It made no mention of the farmers or their claim to the land.

Chhuon Sothy said his office was willing to cut a deal with the original farmers—those who owned 1 hectare or less could have two 20-meter-by-30-meter plots. Those with more than 1 hectare could have three. Um Thon said he would not accept such an offer, and is holding out for a title to at least half of his land.

Many of the government families supported by the court crowded the Spean Kpuos land management office Thursday, their luxury cars parked around the makeshift building. Across the street, a group of 47 protesters, all farmers with apparently worthless claims, looked on.

“Look, they robbed the land from us and sold it to the rich,” Um Thon said. “I would rather die on this land than leave it to them.”

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