Indigenous villagers in Mondolkiri Province have asked authorities to remove the director of a local wildlife sanctuary for ordering forest rangers to burn down their homes on the outskirts of Sen Monorom City last week.
Kleum Meul, the chief of Laoka village in Sokdum commune, said on Monday that he saw seven houses burning on Thursday.
Locals, he said, told him that eight forest rangers had set fire to the houses, complaining that they were illegally located inside the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary.
“Our people cannot accept what they did. We filed a complaint in order to find justice and prevent this from happening again,” he said. “They destroyed everything, including blankets, mats, tarps, plates and pots. They pierced the sacks of rice like Khmer Rouge soldiers.”
Mr. Meul said 21 ethnic Bunong families had moved to the village about five years ago and that a group of them delivered a petition with 31 names to City Hall on Friday.
Sanctuary director Samrong Divichet confirmed issuing the order to raze the houses and said the families had moved in only a month ago.
“Actually, they are not houses—just anarchic huts. They cleared land inside the core zone of the wildlife sanctuary,” he said. “This is a sanctuary, and they cannot clear the land. They just came to build the huts, so we decided to remove them. They are trying to grab the land.”
However, Sok Ratha, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the Bunong had special permission to live on and use state land that was protected by law and called the destruction of their homes a “serious violation” of their rights.
“Ethnic minorities are protected by national and international law,” he said. “They live by rotational farming and their houses are not big. So they normally live on state land, and the government must protect them because they are vulnerable people.”
Sen Monorom City governor Long Vibol said he received the petition on Monday and would arrange a meeting between both sides soon.
“I will invite both sides to explain the facts and find a solution,” he said.