Villagers Ask for Help Removing Local Officials

Two weeks after authorities razed the homes of dozens of families in Battambang province as they protested in front of the Rokha Kiri district office, about 200 villagers brought their grievances to the provincial governor on Monday.

The villagers are demanding the removal of two local officials and a community leader whom they accuse of colluding with timber dealers to illegally log their community forest. They also want to use part of the forest land to plant cassava.

The group left Sdok Bravoek commune at about 6 a.m. and was blocked twice by police along the way, finally arriving at the provincial hall in Battambang City at about 11 a.m.

“We stopped them along the way to check for a permission letter because we were concerned they might cause violence,” said deputy provincial police chief Chet Vanny. “After we asked them, we allowed them to continue.”

Provincial governor Chan Sophal met with three representatives of the villagers in his office and accepted their complaint, which calls for the removal of local forestry division chief You Panhavoan, commune chief Uo Eang, and their own community leader, Un Oeung.

The villagers blame the three for allowing rampant illegal logging in the 1,324-hectare Ta Oeun community forest, which was established by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2002 and intended to be used as a food source for the 250 families who live in the area.

Last month, while about 100 villagers blocked the road outside the district office to demand the removal of Mr. Panhavoan, authorities burned down four houses and razed 35 smaller shelters with chainsaws because they said the buildings were illegally constructed within the protected forest.

Prum Put, one of the representatives who met with the governor on Monday, said local officials and the man meant to be representing the community were making no effort to protect the forest.

“Instead, they conspire with dealers to cut down the trees and sell the community forest land and then share the money among themselves,” he said.

Mr. Eang, the commune chief, denied any wrongdoing and claimed the villagers wanted to remove him because he had prevented them from clearing the forest to use as farmland.

“They want me removed from my position because we did not allow them to clear the community forest land,” he said.

Mr. Panhavoan and Mr. Oeung could not be reached.

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