Senior official accused of land grab

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Sok Sovann Vatana Sabung. Supplied

A member of the Supreme Consultation Forum is set to forward to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the complaints of more than 1,000 families against a military lieutenant general over alleged land grabbing in Kampong Thom province’s Stoung district.

Sok Sovann Vatana Sabung, who is also president of the Khmer Rise Party said the families from nine villages in Chamna Leu commune accused Lieutenant General Koam Saroeun of grabbing two public basins for his own business.

Vatana Sabung said he would send the complaint, the second he had received from the villagers to Hun Sen on Tuesday.

The complaint alleged that Saroeun had forced villagers to pay for water from the basins despite a government directive against it.

Vatana Sabung said a commune council member from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, whom the villagers chose as their representative, had been placed in detention after the lieutenant general filed a complaint to the provincial court.

“We have compiled a report to be sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen. In the meantime, the Supreme Consultation Forum is working to identify those who have colluded [with Saroeun] and are finding more proof to be included in the report to the top leader,” he said.

Saroeun could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Phat Thach, who manages business operations at the basins, told The Post that Saroeun had received a permit from authorities to charge each family 750,000 riel ($187.50) per year after spending his own money to rebuild the basins.

He rejected claims of extortion, saying most families had agreed to pay for water from the basins to irrigate their crops. He said that only a few families had rebuffed the agreement since it was allegedly made.

“We have already filed a complaint to the court. Their allegation that Saroeun had built the basins on state land is completely false. Only a few of the over 1,000 families are unhappy with the agreement and submitted thumbprints for a complaint against Saroeun,” he said.

Provincial governor Sok Lou said the provincial authorities were not involved in the case.

“A national working group had previously solved the case already, but a few families are not happy with the solution. We cannot say who’s right or wrong. The KRP will submit its report to the prime minister, and we also have our own reports to be sent to the top leadership,” he said.

Former Chamna Leu commune chief Loch Bunthort said the two basins were legally built in 2007 by investors to supply water for farming to villagers. He said most residents had agreed to pay for the water.

However, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, Sok Ratha, said the water supply agreement was annulled in 2014 by a government directive, which said the two basins were for collective use in the communities.

The dispute erupted again the following year when Saroeun claimed to have received a new permit to charge villagers for using water from the basin. The dispute led to a protest and subsequent arrest of Thai Then, the commune council member.

Ratha wants the authorities to find an acceptable solution for the victims and especially Then, who was arrested without a fair reason and should be released as soon as possible.

“We do not know what solution the authorities had that led to people holding protests again and again. If the authorities followed the government directive, this conflict might have ended. But it is crucial to know why there is still a trader managing the two basin areas,” said Ratha.