Villagers Dispute Charge of Violent Land-Grab

sihanoukville – Villagers living in a disputed area of Mittapheap district on Monday denied charges made by municipal authorities accusing them of taking part last week in violent land grabbing from richer Sihanoukville landholders.

Countering last week’s charges by local authorities, the families at the center of the land issue said they began moving peacefully onto the disputed property as long as three years ago, when the  land was vacant.

Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak said Thursday that thousands of villagers wielding axes and hoes had claimed land in Mittapheap district early last week after an

Oct 18 speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, promising the redistribution of land to the poor.

Representatives of some 500 families, however, said the most recent arrivals at the disputed site in Commune I, Mittapheap district, came at least three months ago.

Though some villagers had heard Hun Sen’s speech, it was not the impetus for moving onto the land because they had staked their claims well before the prime minister spoke, said village representative Chhun Vanny.

Chhun Vanny and others also said that powerful people have begun making false claims of ownership on their now-cleared plots, because the price of land is rising.

“After people cleared the forest and developed this area and land prices went up, other people arrived and claimed they were the owners of the land,” she said.

“This land has been abandoned for at least 20 years,” she said. She added that villagers never threatened authorities or land­owners with axes and hoes, though they did use them to clear the

forest and work the land.

So Sok, director of the Sihanoukville Land Management department, said Monday that a Saturday deadline for the settlers in Mittapheap to leave their plots has been dropped to prevent bloodshed.

“I think that the city authority is still waiting for permission from the higher-up government before taking action. This is a very sensitive case,” So Sok said.

Up until Oct 18, 143 illegal dwellings had been built on 21 hectares of land belonging to other people. Since Oct 18, the date of the prime minister’s speech, 40 more shacks were built on 125 hectares, he said. When 16 landowners, accompanied by military police officers, went to Mittapheap district to reclaim their land, they were confronted by several hundreds settlers armed with knives, he said.

If Sihanoukville does not “take administrative measures” to resolve the dispute “it will make a bad image for foreign investors,” So Sok added.

Governor Say Hak declined to comment on the land dispute Monday, saying he was in a meeting. He said only that he had submitted a report to the Ministry of Interior and would not evict the settlers until he receives orders from the ministry.

On Thursday, the governor said that those who had moved onto the land in Mittapheap district were wealthy Sihanoukville residents whose motive was to strong-arm bribes from legitimate landowners in return for vacating the property.

The villagers, who live in basic huts on still barren land, vehemently denied that accusation Monday.

“We feel scared when a strong wind blows, because our house is so small it might blow over. Where would we get the money to buy a nice car?” asked one man.

Ninety percent of the families on the disputed land moved to the new site earlier this year after port authorities evicted a squatter village to make way for port development, villagers said.

Chhun Vanny said she submitted a statement to the municipality several months ago, asking it to cede the 35 hectares of the disputed land to the family now trying to eke out a living there.

She never received a response, she said.

Police came to the site Friday with an official statement from the governor, ordering the families to leave the land, the villagers said. The villagers also said that when they rented 20 trucks to go to Phnom Penh and protest their threatened eviction, police wielding electric batons would not allow them to leave the municipality.

Sihanoukville penal police Chief Kol Phally declined to comment on the case Monday, saying he knew little about it. Police did not intimidate villagers and no action would be taken until orders were given by the municipality, Kol Phally said.

Fighting to keep his own small parcel of land from being swallowed by the Sihanoukville port’s expansion, local businessman Phally Kreasna said Monday that the coastal town is abuzz with the land dispute issue and if handled badly it could “explode.”

With a choice between homelessness and eviction, Mittapheap settler Khun Theary, 32, said she would rather face the police.

“If I don’t come here to clear the forest, I won’t have land to build a house, and my children will be homeless,” she said.

 

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