Tampuon minority villagers in Ratanakkiri province are taking the fight for land they claim is a traditional burial ground to the courts, village representatives said Wednesday.
Seng Thung, chief of Banlung district’s Sul village, said he had been helping collect thumbprints in his village and neighboring Labor village to file a case in Ratanakkiri Provincial Court over four hectares of land locals have used as a burial ground for nearly 30 years.
“I hope 100 percent that we will win the case because graveyard land is not to be sold,” he said.
Seng Thung claims the land has been encroached upon by a local official for years, but that only recently have villagers been blocked from burying the dead there.
Villagers said that last week they were forced to bury a local spiritual leader, Buo Nuth, 70, at a new site 500 meters from the contested territory in violation of their traditions.
Banlung District Governor Chhum Nhel said provincial finance director Mom Saroeun legally purchased the land six years ago and has been growing cashew trees on it.
“The land belongs to Mom Saroeun,” he said.
Mom Saroeun could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Adhoc provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar said his organization would help the villagers with their suit, adding that Adhoc had already filed a complaint with provincial authorities, to no avail.
Provincial court Judge An Samnang, who last week said the four hectares belonged to Mom Saroeun and signed a warrant for the arrest of anyone who tried to bury their dead there, said Wednesday that he was not sure who was the rightful owner. “I never know about the case,” he said.
On July 20th, the Ministry of Justice issued a directive scolding provincial and municipal officials for not paying enough attention to disputes over state public land. Prosecutors, the Ministry wrote, must “protect state land and serve the public interest.”
The 2001 Land Law protects both state public land and land used by indigenous communities.