A land dispute between a development company and residents in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district boiled over late Friday night, with villagers setting fire to an excavator that they say company staff were using to raze a crematorium on the disputed plot of land.
Villagers say they arrived at the site opposite Prek Liep commune’s Khtor pagoda just before midnight to discover two men using an excavator to demolish the crematorium, which lies on land that the government last year transferred from the pagoda to a development company.
An angry mob—which most estimated to be in the hundreds—chased the men away from the site and then doused the excavator with petrol, setting it alight along with water pumps and two piles of large blue dredging pipes.
“We heard them coming in to knock down the crematorium, so we rushed to see what was happening—there were about 1,000 of us shouting and crying at them,” said 28-year-old villager Ly Nimol.
“If they did not run away on time, the crowd might have killed them. There were about 30 police who were afraid to confront the people too,” he added.
CNRP lawmaker-elect Long Botta, who lives in the commune, said that he had arrived at the pagoda at around 11:30 p.m. after hearing rumors that the Eng Kaing Development Company was going to destroy the crematorium under the cover of dark.
Mr. Botta said that after villagers chased away the two men and then set the excavator alight, most kept vigil throughout the night on the highway between the crematorium—which was built in 1999—and the pagoda.
“Many people gathered—maybe 1,000—and they decided to block National Road 6A in protest,” he said.
Villagers opened the road at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, but the excavator and pipes sent dark black plumes of smoke into the sky until 2 p.m. Sunday when a fire truck belatedly arrived to douse the flames.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy arrived at the location at about 10 a.m. Sunday, visiting the site of the still burning excavator and announcing his support for the protest to loud cheers from the growing crowd.
“I…announce that the CNRP supports the protest of the people and that we demand the company and authority stop immediately stealing pagoda’s land and must give the land to the monks and people,” Mr. Rainsy shouted.
Ten minutes after Mr. Rainsy’s departure, Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong and Russei Keo district governor Khlaing Huot arrived and announced that an April 2012 decision to hand the plot of land over to the Eng Kaing Development Company had been rescinded on the direct advice of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
A letter from the Council of Ministers, signed by then-secretary of state Prak Sokhon and addressed to the Ministry of Cults and Religion on April 25, 2012, announced the transfer of the land. Villagers and Khtor pagoda head monk Tin Sarom have claimed the decision was invalid as it did not have the approval of the pagoda itself.
A letter dated Sunday and signed by Council of Ministers Secretary of State Khim Russyda, which the two governors delivered to villagers upon their arrival, says the previous decision transferring the land was nullified.
“The government has nullified the Council of Ministers’ notice letter number 445 dated April 25, 2012, concerning the shift of the [the crematorium] to new location…and which allowed the Eng Kaing Development Company to keep the location,” the letter says.
According to villagers, Mr. Socheatvong presented them with the options of either having the land measured and given back to the pagoda with a formal title or becoming state land for further development.
Prak Channa, head of the Russei Keo district council, arrived at the pagoda before 4 p.m. Sunday to discuss the situation with the villagers, across the road from the still smoldering tractor.
A loud cheer erupted when Mr. Channa said that it was clear most villagers preferred a land title for the pagoda.
“After the land has been measured, it will be given to the pagoda,” Mr. Channa said. “Today or tomorrow, the land title authority will measure and make the title.”
He added that further demands from some of the villagers would be discussed in coming days.
Ang Li Eng, director of Eng Kaing Development Company, said that he rejected the pagoda’s claim on the plot of land, but said that the firm would not fight the Council of Ministers’ decision to take back the land.
“That land used to belong to the Ministry of the Agriculture and the monks only borrowed it to build their crematorium,” Mr. Li Eng said, adding that his company had nevertheless agreed to build another crematorium nearby when it received the land in 2012.
“They burned our excavator and pumps and it has cost us $80,000. We have faced a huge loss in building the new stupa but it is their custom to burn private property without consulting with authorities to find a solution.”
Teng Phally, 59, who had taken on a leadership role among the disjointed and often bickering villagers, said the weekend exercise in militancy had been a success.
“We’ve been dealing with the legal procedures [for] two years. If we did not do this, then the authorities would not have had a solution for us,” Ms. Phally said.