Land dispute with Thai firms long resolved, landless families told to submit applications

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Senior officials say the land dispute with the Thai sugar cane companies were resolved in 2010. Khorn Savi

Oddar Meanchey provincial authorities remain puzzled about the Thai Appeal Court’s recent ruling in favour of more than 700 families who claimed to have been locked in a land dispute with three Thai-owned sugar companies in Samrong town and Chongkal district.

Provincial deputy governor Vat Paranin told The Post on Sunday that the land dispute with the firms was resolved in 2010. He said because the case occurred in Cambodia, the complaint should have been filed in a regional court.

“If it happens in Oddar Meanchey, they have to file a complaint to the provincial court. If it happens in Phnom Penh, they have to lodge it at the municipal court. I don’t understand why they, as Cambodian nationals, took the case to a Thai court,” he said.

In 2008, the government granted Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation – the parent company of Angkor Sugar –Tonle Sugar Cane Company and Cane Sugar Valley 30,000ha of economic land concessions for sugar cane plantation in Oddar Meanchey.

The concessions, which affected 1,738 families, were located in Samrong town’s Konkriel and Samrong communes and Chongkal district’s Chongkal and Pongro communes.

Paranin said even though the three firms were in principal granted 10,000ha each, they eventually received only more than 6,000ha each as a large part of the concessions overlapped with villagers’ land.

He said the firms agreed with the provincial authorities and the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction to allocate parts of the land to the villagers, who had long lived and relied on it for their livelihoods.

“The three companies have already addressed the impacts and reached a compromise with the affected villagers. Each company was originally granted 10,000ha but they ended up receiving only around 20,000ha in total. That means nearly 10,000ha was already allocated for the residents,” he said.

The 712 families accused one of the firms – Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation – of displacing them, costing them the land they had relied on for their livelihoods for many years. They demand $43 million in compensation.

In 2018, the Thai Civil Court rejected their joint complaint, telling them to file individual ones instead.

But on July 31, this year, the Thai Appeal Court ruled in favour of the families, allowing them to move forward with a collective complaint against one of the firms, Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation.

The ruling came as the protesting families in Konkriel commune’s four villages – Ta Man, Bos, Trapeang Vaeng and Khtum – continued to demand 25,235ha which they claim had been lost to the companies. The villagers accused the firms of clearing their rice fields and levelling their houses in 2008 and 2009.

Some of the families said since Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation stopped its investment and returned the land to the government in 2015, they had begun to grow rice on it even though the local authorities threatened to arrest them on accusations of illegally occupying State land.

Oddar Meanchey provincial land management department director Kim Keavin confirmed that a compromise was reached since before the firms came to invest in their sugar cane plantations.

Keavin and Paranin called on villagers who need land for farming to submit applications for social land concessions to the provincial State land management committee through the local authorities.

Keavin said in 2018, national-level officials from the land management ministry were stationed in Samrong district’s Konkriel commune for 15 days to receive and review villagers’ applications. He said the government had allocated social land concessions for them in the O’Bat Moan area.

At the time, he said only 412 families applied for the social land concessions. He stressed that the land was provided to landless families as social land concessions, and not as compensation. He said the government would not leave behind any citizens who need land for farming.

Paranin said the provincial administration had instructed the local authorities to go door-to-door to identify residents who needed land for their livelihoods.

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Oddar Meanchey provincial deputy governor Vat Paranin. Khorn Savi

“For residents who didn’t have land to grow rice, the government granted social land concessions to them. I don’t understand why the more than 700 residents filed a complaint [to the Thai court],” he said.

Thann Nhoy, a 51-year-old from Konkriel commune’s Khtum village, said he had occupied 15ha of rice fields that he inherited from his ancestors since 1998. Citing the 2001 Land Law, he said he should have received a title after using the land for over five years.

But he said since 2009, the authorities ceded his 15ha and the rice fields of other villagers to the companies as economic land concessions. However, from 2009 to 2015, he said the firms left the land vacant and did not plant any sugar cane.

When the companies eventually withdrew in 2015, he began to grow rice on the land until 2018 when the authorities allegedly ceded his land and that of other villagers to residents from Tbong Khmum province and told him to stop growing rice on it.

“Now, residents from Tbong Khmum used machinery to clear 4ha of my land. They came to clear big and small trees in our paddy fields. They are different from residents who like to grow rice and maintain trees,” he said, adding he would not give up his land.

Another Khtum villager, Phleung Tep, 59, said her land was not affected by the investment. She said her village had no newcomers from other provinces clearing forest land for rice farming. But she said there could have been newcomers coming from Prey Veng province to settle in the O’Bat Moan area.

Rights group Adhoc’s Oddar Meanchey provincial coordinator Srey Naren said the 712 families had continued to demand land until now because the past solution coordinated by the authorities was unjust and unacceptable.

He said the authorities had not allocated land for the families as claimed but instead made the residents who were involved in the land dispute with the company accept a land swap outside its (the company’s) concession.

He said the swap not only overlapped with other residents’ land but also made them lose a large chunk of it.

“For example, my land is 10ha, but [the authorities] give me only 3ha or 4ha and said I occupy State land. Then they said either I accept the compensation or leave it. Some residents didn’t understand and placed their thumbprint to get the land. Some others refused to accept it.

“Such a problem prompted them to file complaints to various ministries. If there was any land allocation as claimed, the authorities need to show proof. There is no such allocation,” he said.

Lawyer Sek Sophorn said if residents cultivate the land and settled there since 1998 with no dispute, they are entitled to it under the 2001 Land Law, even if they have not been issued a title.

“Under the law, they are the rightful owners. In principle, if the State wants to revoke their land ownership, it cannot do so without their consent.

“And if they refuse to leave, there’s only one thing the State can do – expropriation. But even if the land is expropriated, there needs to be an agreement and compensation for them,” he said.

Sophorn said according to a sub-decree on State land management, the State can grant economic land concessions to an investment company only if it has been registered as State land first. Otherwise, he said the State cannot expropriate the land.

Cheurm Nhoy, a 39-year-old widow with three daughters in Khtum village, said she inherited 4ha. She claimed the authorities made her swap the land with other residents who had disputes with the company.

When she complained to the commune chief, she was promised she would get the land back when the company stops its investment and withdraws.

“Now I have no land at all. I didn’t even get any economic land concession in 2018. Without land to grow rice, my two daughters are hired to work as housemaids,” she said.

Nhoy, the Khtum villager, said in 2018, officials went to measure land for residents in Konkriel commune and allocated 2ha for each family. But he said the land was granted as a social land concession and not as compensation.

Smin Te, who represented the 712 families, said the 2ha concessions were given to 329 of the 712 families. The other 329 families had not submitted applications for social land concessions because they had migrated to Thailand.

“I lost 5ha to the company but I got back only 2ha. I agreed to accept it for fear that I would not get anything at all because I have been protesting since 2009. I’ve filed complaints to the provincial authorities, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the land management ministry and even the Prime Minister’s [Hun Sen] Cabinet.

“Now I stop protesting for fear that the authorities might accuse me of wrongdoing because after obtaining the 2ha, I promised the Forestry Administration chief that I would stop protesting,” he said.