sihanoukville – Dozens of villagers on a hotly-contested hillside in Sihanoukville said three unidentified men charged their properties on Monday night, with material likely intending to burn down their homes.
A group of residents, appointed to guard the site for the evening, thwarted the plan and chased the men away, they said Tuesday.
Representatives of hundreds of families involved in the land dispute in Mittapheap district’s Commune I said increased pressure by authorities and alleged landowners, who are demanding the return of the land, has made them afraid to leave their property.
“We desperately need to earn money because we were already homeless for a long time, but now we are scared people will try to burn down our houses,” said Meang Kha, 33, who has lived at the site for a number of years.
Sihanoukville municipal authorities charged last week that the residents were wealthy speculators who had violently grabbed plots after Prime Minister Hun Sen promised to return the landless in a speech on Oct 18.
But those involved in the Mittapheap district dispute said homeless families have been moving peacefully onto the land for several years. They said the only change since the premier’s speech has been an increase in intimidation by people who want to force them off the contested property.
Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak denied that officials have intimidated villagers and said that while some villagers settled on the disputed land years ago, most of them came recently. He said Tuesday he will eventually arrest 20 ringleaders suspected of organizing the land grabbing.
“We are not going to use violence against those villagers, but we will take legal action,” he said.