About 400 villagers in Siem Reap province protested Friday and Saturday, accusing Ministry of Defense engineering soldiers of clearing their land, according to a rights group and a villager.
The villagers claim the engineering soldiers bulldozed more than 500 of 2,448 hectares of their land in the districts of Sotr Nikom, Banteay Srei and Prasat Bakong, said Chao Leak Vanna, an investigator for local rights group Licadho.
“Those villagers were former Khmer Rouge supporters and forces who defected to the government,” he said.
He added that the villagers have occupied the land since 1997 but have no land titles.
Soldiers driving bulldozers have been clearing rice paddies and trees for 15 straight days, said Chhe Sambo, a 44-year-old villager from Banteay Srei district’s Tbeng commune.
“We have no land to work on right now,” he said by telephone Sunday.
Provincial Governor Sou Phirin said by telephone Sunday that the Ministry of Defense engineering soldiers were clearing the land to make way for a center for disabled people funded by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The Ministry of Defense cleared “519 hectares of land to make way for the disabled center,” he said, adding that the villagers were living on state-owned land.
“They lived on state land and sold the land to businesses and powerful people,” he said. He also claimed that these unnamed buyers “hired [the villagers] to protest.”
Hun Sen donated $1 million to the engineering unit to build the center, which is intended to house up to 100 people with disabilities, Sou Phirin added.
However, Kwann Seam, director of engineering at the Ministry of Defense, claimed his engineers were not involved in the project and had nothing to do with clearing the land.
“They are not our soldiers,” he said. “We have no plans to build anything there.”