Troubled Village Embroiled in New Land Disputes

BROMA VILLAGE, Kratie Province – A year after a massive military raid here that left a 14-year-old girl dead and hundreds of families evicted, there remains little sign of the original land dispute that turned this rural village into a hotbed of agitation.

But a new firm and a government-issued social land concession for other evictees in the province are creating new problems in the area.

For months before the military raided Broma on May 16, 2012, hundreds of families had been protesting against a local rubber plantation owned by the private firm Casotim for allegedly encroaching on their farms. The families had repeatedly blocked nearby roads and only two months before, set fire to a shed they ac­cused the firm of building on their land.

With the protesting families long evicted from Broma, those heady months felt like a distant memory during a visit last week, save for the new military garrison on the edge of town and the odd soldier zooming up or down the main dirt road on a motorcycle.

Instead, solitary farmers hacked patiently away at charred earth in preparation for another planting season.

But old land disputes are giving way to new ones here, thanks to yet another agri-business firm’s plans in the area and the government’s own designs to turn nearly 19,000 hectares on the edge of the village into a social land concession for families across the province either without land or displaced by land disputes.

The remaining families in Broma say both concessions stand to encroach on their farms.

Kan Sovann was one of 10 locals arrested the day of the 2012 raid and convicted—along with independent ration station owner Mam Sonando—of attempting to create an insurrection in Broma.

He said the government’s new so­cial land concession was threatening to swallow up the 4 hec­tares his family has been farming in Broma for the past eight years.

“I was hoping to enjoy my 4 hectares of land, but now they will clear my land and I am hopeless…. I don’t know how I will be able to make money to feed my family,” he said in an interview last week from his village.

He added that unlike many in Broma, he had refused to implicate Mr. Sonando in the alleged secession, which rights groups dismissed as a sham to cover up the government’s eviction of the land protesters, and was handed a three-year prison sentence by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 1.

Though the Appeal Court released Mr. Sonando, Mr. Sovann and two fellow Broma villagers in March, Mr. Sovann—who rejects having had any part in any secession or even the land dispute with Casotim—now finds himself in a real fight for his farm.

Since a pair of excavators ar­rived two weeks ago and started clearing some forestland nearby, Mr. Sovann and about 50 neighbors have been staging early morning protests in the village on a near-daily basis.

The excavator team has set up a tiny camp in a small clearing about 2 km off the main dirt road. On a midday visit on Wednesday, with storm clouds slowly moving in, the half-dozen crewmen were killing time with a listless game of cards beneath a make­shift tarpaulin tent.

Dressed in a khaki shirt and camouflage cargo pants was team leader Chan Kong, a technical officer for the provincial government’s department of land management.

Mr. Kong said the government had plans to clear 18,838 hectares of land and would eventually move in 3,000 families who had been displaced by other land disputes across the province.

He rejected the families’ claims that the concession would take over any long-standing farms and said those claiming otherwise were opportunists hoping to stake out land they had never farmed.

“You see with your own eyes. Does it look like they’ve been living here for eight years?” he said, staring across a clearing overgrown with shoulder-high reeds. “I have explained to the villagers, but they don’t understand me.”

Mr. Kong said he had already had to deal with a few protesters wielding axes and knives but dismissed them as a handful of thuggish drunks.

Though the excavators have yet to touch Mr. Sovann’s nearby 4 hectares, his wife, Sreng Pho, said local authorities have not let them farm it since last year’s raid.

“I’m still worried because even though my land is still here, they don’t let us plant. I’m worried they will take my land in the future,” said Ms. Pho, standing on the edge of her overgrown field.

Contacted by phone, village chief Chea Chin said there was also more than farmland at stake. He said hundreds of ethnic Cham families the government has sent to the village to move onto the new social land concession have already started clearing a 580-hectare government approved community forest the en­tire village and its 600 families rely on.

“We are gathering 50 villagers to go there to stop the Cham people clearing the forest with their knives and axes,” he said.

Contacted Sunday, district governor Sam Sarith confirmed that nearly 1,000 Cham families from elsewhere in the province were being sent to the area to take up land inside the new social land concession.

“We have sent those Cham peo­ple to live there because they have received this social land concession,” he said.

Mr. Sarith said he visited the village to meet personally with the concerned local families, but declined to comment further.

The village chief said another 74 local families were also accusing a new rubber plantation in the area of encroaching on their farms.

Mr. Kong, the man leading the clearing team for the social land concession, said he did not know about the dispute but confirmed that there was a 5,000-hectare concession in the area to grow rubber trees.

© 2013, All rights reserved.