Fifty villagers from Battambang province’s Bavel district protested outside the National Assembly Monday morning, hours after seven more homes in the district were burned down, a rights worker said.
This is the latest chapter in a simmering land dispute between 3,170 families living on over 10,000 hectares of contested forest land in the Ampil Pram Doeum commune and what human rights workers have described as a rogue band of RCAF soldiers bent on taking the land.
Villagers have been ordered to leave by Oct 30 or face forced eviction, according to villagers and rights workers. They claim that RCAF soldiers have detained villagers and burned down a total of 27 homes in recent months.
Ing Kong Chit, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights monitor in Battambang, said villagers have reported that former Khmer Rouge fighters from Regiment 53 of RCAF’s Battalion Two burned down the seven huts on Sunday night, and that district authorities did nothing to stop them.
Bavel district governor Tim Dareth said commune officials have informed him that “unknown offenders” burned down empty huts. He added that no one was living in the structures and that most of them had only been set up by villagers in an attempt to claim land and sell it.
Yorm Moeun, deputy commander of Battalion Two, denied his men had burned down villagers’ homes.
“My men helped put out the flames because it was near where my unit is stationed,” he added.
The protestors in front of the Assembly called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to release three villagers—Chhea Ny, Mol Sab, and Em Lak-who were arrested in recent months for allegedly encroaching on private property.
The protestors handed out copies of letters that Sar Kheng, Minister of Interior, and Heng Samrin, president of the National Assembly, had written to Battambang Governor Prach Chan and the Battambang court requesting that the three men be released on bail. Those letters, they said, have produced no results.
“We request Samdech Hun Sen’s help,” protester Oeun Sarim said.
Heng Samrin, who is also CPP honorary president, could not be contacted for comment, while Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak referred questions to Battambang officials.
Battambang Provincial Court Director Nil Non said he was unaware of the letters.
“Officials have the right to intervene but the decision depends on the independent judge.” he added.