A dispute between villagers and soldiers has arisen over the ownership of several hundred hectares of paddy field in the Bavel district of Battambang province.
Villagers are claiming their land has been occupied by the RCAF and Khmer Rouge defectors. They are now obliged to buy or hire their fields from the soldiers, who have been stationed in Bavel since 1990, they say.
One farmer, 57-year-old Tep Non, said recently she was forced to pay about $4 in 1997 for a rice field given to her by the Cambodian government in 1979.
“If I do not pay them I will not have a field to grow rice on,” she said in Phnom Penh earlier this month. “If we confront the soldiers, we will be threatened.”
Bavel district official Mean Chantha supports the villagers’ claim, saying the land belongs to villagers, not the army.
“It is a complicated problem,” he said Wednesday by telephone.
Ko Chean, the top RCAF general stationed in the northwest, confirmed Wednesday there is a dispute over land in Bavel district.
However, he maintained the villagers abandoned the fields during sporadic fighting in the 1980s and the 1990s, and thus effectively yielded ownership more than six years ago.
Government forces claimed and cleared the land for farming after they secured the territory from the Khmer Rouge in 1997, said Ko Chean, the commander of Military Region 5, based in Battambang town.
The dispute only arose in 1998 when farmers sought to reclaim the cleared land, he said.
Villagers are threatening violence if a solution is not found, district official Mean Chantha said.
The villagers’ claims are being supported by the human rights NGO Adhoc, who say the farmers cleared the land but the military asked the village to hand over the land in 1998.
“We will send a complaint to the National Assembly when we get thumbprints from the villagers,” Adhoc representative Chan Saveth said Wednesday.