More than 500 Jarai ethnic minority families from four villages in Ratanakkiri province are demanding the removal of local officials who allegedly facilitated the illegal sale of over 1,200 hectares of their communal land, village representatives and a rights group said Feb 18.
The villagers lodged a complaint on Thursday with local rights group Adhoc alleging that Romam Ponh, Andong Meas district governor, and Sel Phoeung, Nhang commune chief, assisted in the illegal sale of their land in Nhang commune to an unknown Chinese firm, village representative Sul Khvek said by telephone.
Sul Khvek said that the families have also lodged a complaint of intimidation against Romam Ponh, who they alleged threatened them on February 10 for bringing the land sale to the attention of authorities.
He “threatened to cut the villagers to death,” Sul Khvek said. “The commune chief…also is critically involved in corruption by colluding with the district governor to sell our 1,200 hectares of farmland to rich people,” he added.
Contacted by telephone, Romam Ponh denied that he had threatened the villagers and said that he was not involved in the land sale.
“Those villagers sold their farmland by themselves. I am not the person who is involved with grabbing the land to sell it,” he said before hanging up his telephone.
Sel Phoeung could not be reached for comment.
Sou Sol, another representative of the villagers, said that they met with Ratanakkiri Governor Muong Poy on Jan 21 to discuss the issue, but that nothing had been done.
The Jarai villagers only discovered in September that their land in Muoy, Peng, Tachout and Dal villages had been sold when they found workers demarcating their 1,200 hectares as newly purchased private property, Sou Sol said.
Muong Poy said on Thursday that he handed over the villagers’ complaint to the provincial land management committee, but the person in charge of investigating complaints is in Phnom Penh.
“We will try our best to conduct an investigation as fast as possible when that official ends his mission [in Phnom Penh],” he said, adding that he could not give a date for the return of the investigator, saying only that he would “be back soon.”
Tim Sinath, director of the Ratanakkiri provincial Land Management Department, could not be reached last week for comment.
“Our organization has clear information and proof that many governors in various districts are deeply involved in the sale of community farmland,” said Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc.
Pen Bonnar said that he has advised the Jarai villagers to directly petition Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet, the National Assembly and involved ministries to solve the matter.
The Adhoc office in Ratanakkiri has intervened in around 120 land conflict cases, Pen Bonnar said, adding that rarely had provincial level officials solved disputes in a manner favorable to local villagers.