They arrived in the early morning, gathering under the arms of the giant banyan tree in Hun Sen Park, a hundred or so meters from the Phnom Penh mansion of the prime minister. At night they were still there, leaning on crutches or sitting on the edges of grassy strips, waiting for what they said was rightfully theirs.
“We are disabled war soldiers, and we lost everything. Even our legs and hands are injured forever,” representative Yann Yoek said in an interview early in the day. “Now we ask for concession land to farm so we can support ourselves. Why is the government ignoring us?”
It was the third time this year that the group of more than 100 disabled war veterans—representatives of some 700 families—journeyed from Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces to demand land that local authorities promised them in 2008, said Mr Yoek.
The group brought copies of letters to ministries and government officials asking that each family be given 5 hectares of land in Kratie province’s Snuol district, near the border with Kompong Cham province.
“Tonight we stay under the banyan tree in the park near our Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home because we want a response from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cabinet,” Mr Yoek explained.
But Lim Leangse, deputy Cabinet chief, said by telephone yesterday that the social land concession awaits the approval of the Ministry of Environment because the land is in a protected area.
“The Ministry of Environment is involved with concession land in wildlife sanctuaries,” he said, declining to comment further.
Sem Saroeun, spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, could not be reached yesterday. In June, when the veterans also protested in front of the premier’s home, he said he was unaware of the case.
The veterans claimed yesterday that they were threatened by men who initially said they were from Mr Hun Sen’s Cabinet but later claimed to be from Kratie province’s environment department.
“The men threatened us, saying they will use firefighter trucks to spray water on us,” Mr Yoek said.
Reached by telephone yesterday, Kratie province environment department deputy chief Khat Sovan said he knew nothing of the alleged intimidation. He declined to comment on the case of the disabled soldiers, saying the matter was in the hands of the Environment Ministry.
More than 130,000 hectares of land in 16 provinces have been identified by the government as land that is suitable for distribution to retired military and police personnel and their families.
Sareth Boramy, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Land Management, said yesterday that he was unfamiliar with the case of the disabled soldiers who protested in the capital. But he said that “veterans and the handicapped are the priority group” for social land concessions.
The process of allocating a social land concession includes considering the environmental consequences, according to Mr Boramy. He said the entire process can take six months, and sometimes longer.
The veterans say they have been waiting for two years.
“We were disabled in the war and have no land for farming,” said 53-year-old Say Nhanh, who lost both his legs in 1991 while fighting the Khmer Rouge in Battambang province’s Samlot district.
“We need to live,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Clancy McGilligan)