After a Preah Sihanouk province land conflict took a violent turn and resulted in eight arrests last week, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces spokesperson said officials would investigate a high-ranking military official claiming the land in Prey Nob district.
Cambodian Army spokesperson Mao Phalla said on Friday that the army is waiting for Brigade 70 to perform an internal investigation of Phoeun Phalla, the deputy head of the elite military unit and a businessman, for his involvement in a land conflict in O’Oknha Heng commune’s Ou Ta Sek and O’Oknha Heng villages.
“When there is such an issue, there will be an investigation that must go down, but they hand it to the unit to do it by itself within the hierarchy first,” he said. “He was under Brigade 70, so it has its own law experts to do it, and then they will send a report to the commander of the army, and the commander of the army continues the work.”
On December 20, several people were injured in a scuffle over overlapping land claims, with residents reporting gunshots. Eight people from O’Oknha Heng village were arrested the day after.
Koy Chan, a 27-year-old resident, said he was beaten in the head and back in the fight, and he heard two gunshots.
Lim Bunheng, provincial court spokesperson, told VOD on Friday that the province’s prosecutor had charged the eight with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances.
Chuon Narin, the provincial police chief, said authorities were looking for others connected to the violence.
“Besides the eight people whom we have sent to the court, we are continuing the procedure and we are investigating perpetrators for using violence and causing damage to people’s property,” Narin said.
According to a letter signed by the provincial governor on December 21, the provincial administration has been investigating land claims in O’Oknha Heng commune since September 11, but the administration ordered a suspension of the district’s land surveys on December 8 in order to allow a provincial-level working group to look into land ownership.
The letter also asked people to withhold their concerns until the working group completed its report.
Kheang Phearum, spokesperson for Preah Sihanouk provincial administration, said on Friday that the government wasn’t sure who owned the land.
“We are investigating the dispute, and there is no result yet,” he said. “We still do not know who the owner of the land is and we are waiting for the results of the investigation.”
One O’Oknha Heng village resident, a 30-year-old named Chith, said the age of his parents’ home and the trees they planted around it can testify to the family’s long-standing claim to their land. He said his family also has a land title recognized by the local government, which he has used to obtain a $5,000 microfinance loan.
“My parents’ house is built from concrete and it’s started to wear out,” he said. “It is not like other news reports that houses are new, so people are not happy about [this dispute].”
Phoeun Phalla is chairman of real estate company PLG Phoeun Phalla Development Group, and is listed by the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce as an oknha, a title given to people who donate money to the government and gain adviser privileges.
Mao Phalla, the army spokesperson, said the army has handled similar complaints about military officers with large commercial interests. Last year, Defense Minister Tea Banh ordered all soldiers with oknha titles to choose between their military or commercial ranks.
“I do not know whether someone has removed him from the [oknha list] or not, but if they find him, he will be fired,” Phalla said.
An assistant at the Phoeun Phalla Development Group, who gave his name only as Ratanak, claimed the tycoon had bought 600 hectares from residents since 1993, and the 200 people who are currently involved in the dispute live on fewer than 20 hectares within that area. He told VOD on Friday that the company would reserve that area for the families and planned to construct homes for the residents.
“Recently we’ve needed to make new ownership certificates, so we sent the document to the district [land office] to survey how many people have lived on the land, how many houses and families, and then we will cut off that land for them, even though the land belonged to the company, because they have lived there for a long time and we do not want to have disputes with the people.”
The assistant claimed there was one resident instigating the attacks against the company’s surveyors.