oral district, Kompong Speu province – Standing in front of the flattened mess of thatch and sticks that was her home until earlier this month, Nuon Pheary, 46, clutched her tiny granddaughter on Thursday and wondered where they would go.
When she and her 60-year-old husband Hou Keo moved to Toeng Troeng village, Sangke Satob commune, about five years ago, they thought they had found the answer to their problems: A cheap hectare of land on which to quietly live out their days.
Together they cleared the heavily forested plot, planted rows of cashew trees and built a home they thought would shelter them forever.
But since November, they and their neighbors have been caught up in a large-scale land dispute with district and RCAF officials that has led to at least seven arrests, some 20 arrest warrants and the destruction of up to 200 homes.
For several kilometers, flattened, deserted homes like hers dot one side of the road through the commune; villagers say the homes’ destruction began in November. On the opposite side, villagers squat in a string of hastily built thatch shanties until they can find somewhere else to live.
On Dec 1, the dispute landed on Nuon Pheary’s doorstep. Police came to her home to arrest her husband on charges of illegally encroaching on private land, she said.
On Jan 2, she said, RCAF soldiers destroyed her home and ordered her away.
“The police and the court officials told me that if I want my husband to be let out of [provincial] prison, then I must leave my house,” she said. “I don’t know where we will go…. I have no rice to eat. I have nothing.”
Asked whether soldiers had knocked down the homes, Keo Samuon, an RCAF commander of Military Region Three, which includes Kompong Speu province, responded Sunday: “Before an accusation is put on anyone there should be an investigation.” He added that he did not want to be asked about land disputes in the province.
RCAF Colonel In Sokhea, also an official in Military Region Three, said he was involved in the dispute but referred further questions to the court.
Sok Khearin, deputy provincial police chief, said police and soldiers helped dismantle the homes on the orders of the court, while Muong Thy, deputy district governor, said soldiers destroyed the villagers’ homes as a last resort.
He said the move followed months of summonses to attend the court to discuss the land dispute, which the villagers ignored. He added that the land is not theirs. “This land belongs to soldiers, police officials, provincial officials and some officials from various ministries in Phnom Penh,” he said.
Phang Samon, deputy director of the provincial court, declined comment.
Villagers said they first became aware of the dispute on Nov 14, when 30 military and district police officers arrived at their village with orders to dismantle their homes.
Around 100 villagers protested, they said, but when the soldiers began firing at the ground, they turned and fled.
The district governor has said that villagers carrying weapons chased officials from the scene, while rights workers have said that one person seized a rifle from the authorities and discharged bullets in the air before fleeing into the jungle.
In the days that followed, more than 100 villagers fled to Phnom Penh. On Nov 29, armed police raided a house in Tuol Kok district, where more than 50 of the villagers were hiding, and arrested four of them.
Farmer Sao Ry, 38, who has remained in the village, says he suspects there is also a warrant out for him. He said he had protested the eviction, but that people now were too afraid to do so due to the arrests. He added that he had been farming on a hectare of land since 2001 and, like others here, admitted he has no land title.
“When we started living here, we cleared the trees and nobody stopped us or said that we could not live here,” he said. “No one heard any summons from the court—just one day the soldiers came.”
Muong Thy said the disputed land—which he says includes 2,290 hectares, while villagers claim it is 3,600 hectares—was conceded to 105 owners in the military, police and other government bodies in 1997.
He said the land was unpopulated at that time, and that there are only 43 families living there without titles—not the 286 families that the villagers claim.
Ministry of Justice Secretary of State Tuot Lux said that a meeting scheduled for Tuesday between Kompong Speu provincial court officials and ministry officials in Phnom Penh should clear up the case.“We do not know who is right and who is wrong,” Tuot Lux said.
Suy Heang, a 76-year-old woman with high blood pressure, said that under the current circumstances, her fate is uncertain. She has so far refused to leave her home, which has not been demolished, though she fears the worst.
“I am just surviving. I don’t know where I am going to live next,” she said. “I’m too old already. They came here and said, ‘Hey grandmother, walk out.’ But I said I’m too old. I have no place to live.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)