Authorities have claimed that some 100 families who clashed with police in Preah Sihanouk province’s Prey Nop district last week have no legal rights to the land as they do not possess proper titles.
However, the villagers claim to have lived there for a significant time after having paid for their plots – something not recognised by the authorities, with one vowing to die for his.
Last Thursday almost 300 people burned car tyres and blocked roads in Koki village in Prey Nop district’s Bit Traing commune, in clashes with more than 200 policemen who went to clear their houses after a November 2017 Supreme Court ruling in the case.
One villager was shot, sustaining serious injuries, and was sent for emergency treatment at a Phnom Penh hospital. Four others were arrested. but released the same day.
Oem Sarom, the former chief of Bit Traing commune, told The Post that in 2016, when he held the position, many people arrived in the area to claim land, with authorities attempting to stop them.
“The land, as far as I know, had an owner, but they kept away and seemed to not care about it. [And] in 2016-17 people came to grab it."
“Those currently living on the land are not from the village, absolutely not. Most of them are outsiders from Koh Kong and Kampot [provinces],” he said.
Koki village chief Sok Nara also said that the people involved in the dispute were new to the area, but he added that he believed some had indeed paid for their plots.
“[Different people] came and left the village. But actually, there are those affected because they had no land and bought plots from those who grabbed it. Those who sold the land took the money and left,” he said.
Soeung Sang, 60, a villager affected by the dispute, told The Post that he had lived on the land for nearly 20 years but did not have any documents because the authorities had not issued any for his community, even though they had been requested.
“I don’t know where to go if they come to clear [us out]. I will stay to challenge this. I am prepared to die in the struggle for this land,” he said, adding that he wanted to see a proper solution for his community.
A Supreme Court verdict dated December 1, 2017, said the disputed area measured 71ha and had been bought and sold since 1993 by one Heng Uy Hok, who had purchased it from nine families.
But the payment was not made in full, and the families ended the sale and purchase contract and continued to own the land.
The verdict added that Uy Hok, the defendant, illegally secured a title dated 1993, leading to a lawsuit being filed at Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court in 2010, with the Supreme Court finally ruling in November 2017 to return the disputed land to the nine families.
Than Thavireak, the defence lawyer for the nine families told The Post on Tuesday that his clients filed the lawsuit in 2010.
He said that up until the verdict, notices had been served on many occasions but the villagers had refused to leave due to encouragement from a person named You Narin, who he described as their leader. He said 20ha were disputed.
On Tuesday, Narin dismissed the allegation that he had incited the villagers to protest the Supreme Court verdict.
He claimed he was also a victim as he had bought the land with a sale and purchase contract recognised by village and commune chiefs.
Narin claimed 27ha had been used to grow crops after being purchased, but he said this was 3km from the land designated in the verdict.
Cheap Sotheary, the provincial coordinator for right groups Adhoc, told The Post that she had not received a complaint in the dispute but went to observe the situation after the clashes.
She expressed the belief that the dispute involved three groups of claimants – one that held proper documents, another that possessed land with recognition from the authorities, and the third that claimed the land without recognition.
Villagers were setting up tents on the disputed land on Tuesday after claiming machinery had demolished their homes.
They said the authorities had collected data and thumbprints from them, but some refused to cooperate in case the authorities reported differently from how they saw the situation.
Sitting at his petrol stall near the protest site, Yoem Samnang claimed the lure of cheap land brought people to the area.
“All [the disputants] are newcomers. In the past [people] came to take a big plot of land up to 100m, and later they split it into smaller plots to be sold."
“Some bought, and others followed. When they heard the land was potentially 10m by 30m and cost only $1,000 or $2,000, they flocked to buy. As far as I know, the price of land started to increase since February last year. In the past, for this size it was only $300,” he said.
Samnang said those who initially grabbed the land left the area after it had been sold to the villagers who were now protesting.
“As far as I know, 70 per cent of people on this land are victims because they bought their land from others. In the past, people asked me to buy land here, but I did not dare to. The people who bought are those who had money and dared to take the risk,” he said.
Cheng Srong, the director of the Preah Sihanouk provincial Department of Land Management, Urban Planning, Construction and Cadastre, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.