July 29, 2019

Hundreds protest over land rows

More than 300 residents from five provinces gathered in front of the Botum Vatey Pagoda in Phnom Penh on Monday before marching to government institutions to submit petitions demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen intervene in their long-running land disputes.

The protests began at 7am with some people gathering under a banyan tree, while others took their place near a park fence.

Divided into groups of different communities, some shouted and held up banners to demand a settlement to their disputes.

A civil society organisation which recorded resident numbers said they had come from 30 communities in Kampong Speu, Kandal, Preah Sihanouk, Svay Rieng and Tbong Khmum provinces.

The organisation said the protesters represented 7,615 families involved in disputes over 16,279.64ha of land.

They were in conflict with private companies, powerful individuals and traders in development schemes such as economic land concessions – and involving irrigation systems and social land concessions, the organisation said.

A protester in her late 30s from Svay Rieng province, Khiech Saron, told The Post that they had sought intervention and submitted petitions to several relevant institutions many times before. She said the different groups coming at the same time was by “accident”.

Even though they had come from different places, Saron said, their issues all related to falling victim to the loss of land.

She expected that the government would intervene this time so they could finally resume cultivating crops to improve their living standards.

“Our dispute with NK Ventures started in 2010 and affects more than 440 families on 670ha of land and there are other communities in Svay Rieng affected by other companies.

“It’s been almost 10 years. The government officials sleep in air-conditioned houses and I don’t think they know how much we are suffering,” Saron said.

Another resident, Sem Sang from Tbong Khmum province, said his dispute had been going on for 15 years, while other residents had also been in conflict with powerful and wealthy individuals for years.

He said seeking intervention seemed hopeless because almost none of the institutions seemed to have a solution. “The powerful and wealthy continue to live a comfortable life and ignore the hardships of impoverished residents like us.

“We want Samdech [Hun Sen] to help settle the disputes with the rich and Oknhas in Dambe district. They encroached on 500ha of land and it’s not been settled since 2004. I don’t have any faith because we’ve come many times. Our rights are being denied,” he said.

Despite the peaceful nature of the gathering – with protesters shouting through megaphones while walking from the pagoda to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction and the National Assembly – they were halted by the authorities as they were allegedly affecting public order.

Kong Chamroeun, a member of Hun Sen’s cabinet who received the petitions, said that to protect public order, the authorities invited community representatives to submit the petitions on behalf of the protesters.

But he said they insisted on marching together to submit the petitions, so the authorities were forced to halt them.

“They claimed to have long-running disputes, but we don’t know whether it’s true. When they come to submit petitions, it’s like they’re coming to sing,” he said.

Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community director Theng Savoeun said if the government truly wanted to settle the disputes, the issues would have been solved long ago.

“The disputes have lasted so long because the authorities had delayed in solving them. The national and provincial levels don’t seem to have the will to solve them decisively.

“We want the issues to be solved soon because we don’t want the residents to have to keep coming to Phnom Penh – and if it remains drawn-out, their protests could escalate. They have no land to cultivate their crops and they have no choice but to move,” he said.

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