Villagers from Preah Vihear province who for the past two months have been staying at Phnom Penh’s Samakki Raingsey pagoda Monday marched to the National Assembly to deliver a petition demanding the return of their farmland.
About 70 villagers set off from the pagoda in Meanchey district at about 6:30 a.m. to get a jump on the police that blocked their previous attempts to march to the city center last week, said Thach Ha Sam Ang, the pagoda’s deputy chief monk.
“This morning, people started marching about 6:30 a.m., but there were no monks joining them. Four representatives had been assigned to inform people in the morning and they started to march immediately,” said Thach Ha Sam Ang. “The authorities could not stop the villagers.”
The arrests of two monks outside the Samakki Raingsey pagoda and jailing of activist monk Soeung Hai during a protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday scared the monks into staying home Monday, Thach Ha Sam Ang said.
After chanting their way down Mao Tse Toung and Sothearos boulevards, the villagers arrived at the National Assembly, where four representatives were allowed inside to hand off their petition.
Community representative Phan Thoeun said that he and three other villagers met with CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, chairman of the assembly’s human rights commission, who promised to look into their land dispute
The petition demands that 610 hectares of land in three villages be returned to the residents, and that authorities refrain from using further violence against protesters, following a clash with district security guards in Phnom Penh last month that resulted in 18 of them being injured.
Former village chief Kan Ngim, 51, who was among the marchers Monday, said the community first settled in Choam Ksan district in 1999 and lived free of conflict until 2010, when he refused a request from Sous Yara, a National Assembly member from the province, to build a local government office on part of the land.
“He said that if you don’t let me have some of the land, then none of you will have any land,” Mr. Ngim said of Mr. Yara.
Mr. Ngim claimed that in late 2010, Mr. Yara declared that the part of the area the villagers were living on was located inside the protected Unesco World Heritage Site surrounding Preah Vihear temple.
“He started claiming that it was a protected area and then, in 2011, they sent soldiers to dismantle our houses,” he said, adding that after losing their farmland, many families that once lived in the area had left to find work in Thailand.
Contacted by telephone, Mr. Yara refused to comment on the dispute, but voiced his general frustration with the villagers.
“I have no idea why these people have gone to Phnom Penh rather than solve the problem with local authorities,” he said.
“Do they think that only Phnom Penh has laws?”