More than 200 ethnic minority villagers in Stung Treng province protested Friday and Saturday in an attempt to reclaim land which they and rights groups allege has been cleared by four companies illegitimately given timber concessions by the government.
This is the latest in a long string of land disputes in Cambodia, which have been given extra urgency by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s week-old “war” against land grabbers.
Indigenous villagers from Chrop, Sre Sranok, and Kbal Romea villages in Sesan district’s Kbal Romea commune started protesting Friday in front of the Bopeakta Taram pagoda in Chrop village, according to the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 23 rights organizations.
On Saturday around 8 am, the villagers laid three large logs across National Road 78, blocking traffic between Ratanakkiri province and Phnom Penh, rights workers said.
“The forest is the rice pot for minority people here,” said Uong Ry, an investigator for local rights group Adhoc who was at the protests. “If it is destroyed, there will be nothing for them to catch and they will have no food for their families.”
Four companies have been granted concessions to plant trees on land long used by indigenous villagers for subsistence farming, hunting and resin production, according to CHRAC. In a statement Saturday, CHRAC appealed to the government to stop granting such concessions, which it alleges are in violation of a provision of the Land Law that protects indigenous land from being transferred to owners outside the community.
Stung Treng Provincial Police Chief Ngoun Koeun said Sunday that villagers had no right to block the road and should have appealed to top government leaders for help instead. “Their roadblock made other people angry and late for work,” he said. He added that the villagers removed the road block at the request of police around 2:30 pm on Saturday.
On March 5, Hun Sen said CPP officials who had grabbed state land had one week to hand over their ill-gotten property or face dismissal. Rights groups have been calling for action to back up Hun Sen’s words, which came less than a month before April’s commune elections.
On Saturday RCAF Colonel Te Haing was arrested in the latest twist of a long-simmering dispute over 1,000 hectares of land in Banteay Meanchey province, Provincial Military Police Commander Roth Sreang said.
Last year, provincial authorities confiscated over 1,000 hectares from Te Haing, a border protection official, and from about 30 other people on the grounds that it was forested land that rightfully belonged to the state, officials said. Te Haing, however, kept on claiming to own the land until his arrest, said Chuong Praseut, provincial cabinet chief.
Asked about the arrest, National Assembly and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin said that it was time to punish land grabbers, including those in the ruling party.
“We have been popular for a long time,” he said of the CPP. “We have received 73 seats [in the National Assembly]. Now we have to carry out the law because before we did not govern well.”
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