Armed with machetes, knives and sticks, several dozen villagers in Mondolkiri province’s O’Reang district confronted border police on Monday over what local authorities said was one of several recent illegal claims to the province’s increasingly valuable land.
Forty-four Phnong minority villagers stormed a plot of unforested land along a 2 km stretch of road in Phou Les village, Bak Nam commune, upon which police had erected wooden posts marking off their own individual plots, O’Reang district Chief Nham Pheng said Thursday. When they tried to tear down the posts, border police shot over their heads, the chief said. No one was injured.
Land grabs have become increasingly common as the first signs of speculation have come to Mondolkiri, Nham Pheng said.
“The price of land right now is increasing in O’Reang district and other places in Mondolkiri, because people have seen that the government is moving to develop the area,” he said.
In O’Reang, a plot 50 meters by 100 meters can sell for $500 to $2,000, depending on its location, Nham Pheng said.
Since the government cleared a dirt road leading through Phou Les village about one year ago—an improvement over the oxcart tracks that used to serve as access—squatters have swooped in, claiming plots of land with the haphazard planting of a few simple crops, Nham Pheng said. None of the land has been registered by the government, making it difficult for villagers to prove their claim, he said.
More than 100 officers are stationed at the O’Reang border police post and most have claimed a plot of land for themselves, post Chief An Bunrith said Thursday. He confirmed that Monday’s showdown between police and villagers occurred.
Provincial police are investigating the incident, said Chim Sarun, deputy chief of Mondolkiri provincial police. Land disputes were common in the province, he said, adding, “the people there just occupy wherever they can.”
Before land prices rose, provincial authorities discussed a plan to give 5 hectares of land to every family in the province, which has a population of 42,000, Chim Sarun said. That has since been scrapped.
“Local authorities were supposed to use this land and distribute it to poor people for farming,” Nham Pheng said. “The rich and powerful people have been grabbing the empty land without getting a legal license.”