Villagers Hope Action Follows PM’s Land Speech

Sar Prumthan remembers vividly the last time Prime Minister Hun Sen warned the powerful against grabbing land from the weak.

Warning that land-grabbing could spark a “farmer’s revolution,” Hun Sen on Dec 7 called on high-ranking officials and RCAF for­ces to compare themselves to or­­dinary people and to stop violating the rights of the poor.

Inspired by the prime minister’s speech and armed with an injunction issued by Sihanoukville Mu­nicipal Court, Sar Prumthan and her fellow Sihanoukville villagers headed back to a piece of land that they claimed was rightly theirs but had been stolen by the powerful.

They did not get the response they had hoped for.

“The Sihanoukville governor and other district officials used elec­tric batons and guns to beat vil­lagers. They arrested others and threatened people to move from the disputed land,” Sar Prum­than, 48, said of the Dec 19 incident in Mittapheap district.

Hun Sen has periodically threatened his officials with jail and dismissal for land-grabbing, and made his most recent such threat on Monday.

But villagers in Sihanoukville and elsewhere said this week that local officials sometimes ignore Hun Sen’s orders, and that the prime minister must now back his speech with action.

“Samdech Hun Sen clearly un­derstands that his officials and oth­er wealthy businessmen are grabbing poor villagers’ land, but those of­ficials have ignored the order,” said Thang Samy, 37, who along with Sar Prumthan and some 130 other families tried to reclaim the 14-hectare plot in Mittapheap’s Buon commune.

The villagers claim to have lived on the land for 10 years, before they were first evicted in February 2005.

“I propose to Samdech Hun Sen to jail a few of them and return land to poor citizens in order to warn other soldiers and high ranking officials to stop grabbing our land,” Thang Samy said.

Speaking on Monday ahead of the Consultative Group donors’ meeting in March, which has taken land issues as a core reform ba­rometer, Hun Sen again ac­knowledged that land grabbing is a long-standing issue. “We have talked about the same thing for many years,” he said.

He cited the recent removal to other government jobs of top Ra­tanakkiri provincial officials al­legedly linked to illegal logging as proof that he meant business.

“It will not be the last,” Hun Sen said. “If it involves land encroachment, then there will be no forgiveness.”

Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak said the families in Mittap­heap district had constructed homes illegally on the land, and that tough action needed to be ta­ken against them.

“The land belongs to a wealthy businessman who has legal land titles. Those villagers actually constructed homes illegally without asking permission,” he said.

In Oddar Meanchey province’s An­long Veng district, villager Nhim Sary hopes that Hun Sen does more than talk, and helps take back some of the 1,200 hec­tares of land allegedly seized from villagers by police and RCAF soldiers in December.

“Villagers have only one small piece of land to live while those soldiers have several luxury villas,” Nhim Sary said.

“I am hopeful the premier will confiscate that land to return to the villagers because he needs to take care of his children,” he said.

Dom Chhuny, Anlong Veng deputy governor, said the villagers have no legitimate claim to the land, which he said belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture, and which he said the villagers moved onto only recently.

“We asked those people to move from the land peacefully. We did not use any armed forces to destroy their home or to beat them,” he said.

He added that he hoped Hun Sen’s words would inspire ordinary people as well as government officials not to grab land.

“I support the premier’s words,” he added. “Land grabbers include the powerful and ordinary people as well.”

In Battambang province’s Ra­tanak Mondol district, villager Tith Sophat claimed that Prum Patt, com­mander of RCAF Border Ba­tallion 504, used his troops to grab 115 hectares of land from more than 100 families in October.

“I would prefer the premier to fire those powerful officials,” he said.

Prum Patt declined to comment on Tith Sophat’s allegation.

Chan Soveth, investigator with local rights group Adhoc, welcomed Hun Sen’s speech, which he said shows the government is aware of the problem.

“Intimidation over land disputes will decrease,” he said, though he add­ed that officials should not be ar­bitrarily arrested.

“The government should have a clear mechanism and do it step by step,” he said.

Em Veasna, investigator for Hu­man Rights Vigilance of Cambo­dia, said Hun Sen must to be sure to turn his words into deeds, particularly in rural areas.

“I’ve noticed that whenever the premier’s words came out, it was very useful for land issues in the town, but land grabs in remote areas are still a serious matter,” he said.





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