September 24, 2020

Koh Kong land disputes largely ‘resolved’

The Ministry of Land Management, Urban planning and Construction said some protesters who claimed to represent 1,217 families allegedly involved in land disputes with four companies in Koh Kong province have no legal basis to seek more compensation.

The ministry said some of the land disputes had already been resolved by relevant authorities.

The response came after five groups of protesters gathered to seek a solution at the ministry on Monday.

In a letter issued hours after the protest, the ministry said the groups were from Sre Ambel, Thma Bang and Botum Sakor districts in Koh Kong.

Some of them, it said, claimed to have been involved in land disputes with Koh Kong Plantation and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co Ltd, while others were allegedly locked in a row with Heng Huy Agriculture Group and Union Development Group Co Ltd (UDG).

The letter said some residents had no names to lay claim to the land because they did not fill out fact sheets as announced by the ministry in 2017. Some, it said, had no ownership documents.

Some of the families demanded land registration, while others requested they be granted social land concessions. Some others, it said, demanded the return of their land.

“Thirty-three families filed complaints to demand land from UDG. Having checked it, the ministry found that 13 families had already received solutions. Another 20 families were not among affected residents,” the letter read.

The groups also included residents from other provinces, including Tbong Khmum and Svay Rieng, who demanded a solution to land dispute in their respective provinces.

They blocked a road in front of the ministry and demanded to meet Minister Chea Sophara.

However, Phnom Penh municipal police forces broke up the gathering and instead allowed them to stage a sit-in on the roadside. They eventually returned home later that day after delivering their petitions.

Sam Vuthy, who claimed to represent 33 families allegedly involved in a land dispute with UDG, said they had lost a total of 279ha to the company.

While acknowledging that some of the 33 families had received a solution, he said it was not a proper compromise given the size of the land they had lost to the company.

He said some of the residents received only 1-2ha as part of a solution reached in 2010. Some others received land measuring 24m by 80m, while others, whom he claimed had lost between 8ha to over 10ha, received only $400 to $500 instead of land.

“I have 9ha, but it [UDG] gave me only $480 and gave me back 2.5ha. If we refused to take it, we will get nothing at all. At that time, they evicted us from our land. They used Military Police, security and environment forces to evict us,” he said.

Bun Sarin, a 56-year-old who claimed to have lost 12ha to UDG, said he had land documents to prove his ownership.

He said the documents were recognised by village and commune authorities. He also received a letter from the company recognising his land ownership when it offered compensation.

“The documents were certified by the authorities. The land has clear boundaries and thumbprints between people having land adjacent to each other.

“They asked the authorities to acknowledge the thumbprints. Now, we demand the company and relevant ministries provide land for us in compensation. But if they want to offer financial compensation, there need to be negotiations based on market prices,” he said.

Chhim Saphan, a 65-year-old who claimed to represent 843 families, said they renewed their protests after submitting their petitions to the ministry many times to no avail.

“The main purpose that we come today is to ask [Sophara] when he will solve the disputes for us. We want an answer. If we don’t get a response as to when the dispute will be solved, we will go back to stay on our respective land as a last resort.

“We set up tents because [the firm]has stopped growing sugar cane on the land since the past four to five years already,” he said.

Saphan said before the dispute started in 2009, the families had a total of 1,720ha. He claimed they had grown rice and other crops on the land since the 1980s and had ownership documents recognised by village and commune authorities.

Botum Sakor district governor Hak Leng declined to provide details of the land dispute involving the 33 families, saying the row started before he took office.

“This is an old case left behind since the last two governors, so I cannot comment on it. The land management ministry knows it better than us because citizens have long filed complaints with it,” he said.

Ta Noun commune chief Yoeng Vang Vireak could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Am Sam Ath, the head of monitoring for rights group Licadho, said while he acknowledged that the land dispute in Koh Kong had already been solved by the provincial authorities and the ministry several times, he called for a speedy solution to the remaining cases.

Citing affected residents, he said some had not received proper solutions while others had received no compromise at all. The ministry, he said, had responded either by saying the protesting villagers did not have enough documents or that the disputes had already been solved.

He urged the ministry to get to the bottom of the matter and provide a solution acceptable to all parties.

“We have to look into the root cause of the problems faced by each family, so they can be solved immediately. Once we figure it out, we can allow them to come in and solve the problems instead of letting it linger for too long,” he said.

Thong Chan Dara, the Koh Kong provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, agreed that some of the protesters involved in the Koh Kong land disputes had received a proper solution, though he said some had accepted little compensation because they had no choice.

He said those who received proper solutions lived on the actual land and owned houses in the villages and communes where the dispute arose. He said others who owned houses outside the villages and communes did not receive solutions for the land they lost.

“The authorities said they lacked ownership paperwork. They lacked the documentation because they just occupied the land,” he said.

However, Koh Kong provincial land management department director Ros Viravuth emphasised that the dispute had been solved already. He said some of those who had received a solution incited others to file complaints.

“I don’t know for sure either, but a new group of people who came to seek a solution just claimed they belonged to this group or that group,” he said.

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