Villagers Fearing Land Grab Set Fires in Protest

Afraid of having their land taken from them, more than 70 villagers in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon dis­­trict gathered in the streets on Wednesday and burned tires to drive away municipal authorities, who they thought were surveying their land for eviction.

The villagers, from three communes around Boeng Trabek, wav­ed posters, some bearing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s image, and accused the visiting group of about 40 municipal officials, district police and military police, of trying to confiscate their lakeside property.

“We protest and burn tires to let the government know that we all really need to live on this land,” said protester Suy Sarim, 48, a resident of Boeng Trabek commune.

Protester Chhing Sokuntheary said authorities had informed villagers they wanted to measure the land around the lake so that it may be used as a reservoir. But she feared that would mean people being kicked out of their homes.

“I am determined to prevent au­thorities from invading and confiscating my land,” she said.

Sen Bote, Boeng Trabek commune chief, said that he and the de­­legation of officials departed within 30 minutes of arriving at the scene Wednesday.

“We could do nothing. Villagers were very angry and shouted at us to stop doing anything,” Sen Bote said. “We wanted to measure the lake and take the statistics of villagers who had filled the lake and constructed homes.”

More than 100 families live around Boeng Trabek in the communes of Boeng Trabek, Tuol Tum­pong I and Phsar Daum Thkow, Sen Bote said. Some be­gan filling in parts of the lake in 1997 to build homes there.

He said some villagers were skep­tical of the municipality’s plans to use the lake as a reservoir and were concerned that City Hall would instead sell their land to a private company.

Mam Bun Neang, Phnom Penh first deputy governor, denied the city had any plans to sell the property.

But, he said, authorities must en­­sure that the lake covers an area of 26 hectares so that it can hold water that would otherwise flood the city during the rainy season.

“The lake is public property. No one could grab it,” Mam Bun Neang said Wednesday.

He said the municipality has is­sued several letters informing vil­la­gers to stop filling the lake. But he said the municipality would not use violence and would instead negotiate a resolution with any villagers who had built homes on the lake.

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