Cottages Destroyed, Police Official Returns Land in Scramble to Reclaim Flooded Forests

3 min read
Armed officials patrol in Battambang in search of land encroachments along the Tonle Sap lake. (GRK News)

Military police and provincial officials again rushed around the Tonle Sap lake on Wednesday, destroying dozens of cottages, removing thousands of land-marker poles, accepting 675 hectares from a police deputy, and arresting several residents.

But the scramble, spurred by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Sunday Facebook tirade, appears to have yet to snare any officials’ arrests despite Hun Sen calling for corrupt officials at all levels to be sent to court and prison. The discrepancy between arrests of ordinary citizens and impunity for officials drew criticism from a civil society observer.

Sun Sovannarith, governor of Kampong Chhnang province, said on Wednesday that work continued in the sudden campaign to reclaim the Tonle Sap’s protected forests, and would quickly move onto restoration.

“From tomorrow, we will start to replant trees. Our plan is to plant more than 20,000 trees, but for tomorrow, we will plant only 2,000 trees,” Sovannarith said.

He said Wednesday had been fruitful, but when asked about arrests would only say that experts were continuing to work.

“So far we have reclaimed the land from 13 people already, which is more than 2,000 hectares of flooded forest,” he said. “We have removed 55 cottages and 2,000 poles from the land.”

Among those who returned land was provincial deputy police chief Sum Socheat, who gave back 675 hectares, Sovannarith said.

“He has been willing to return the land back since November 29, as that land is in area three, an area from which we have to confiscate back,” he said. “And the experts are still working on this.”

In the province, Hun Sen accused Sovannarith’s predecessor of grabbing more than 2,000 hectares of forest for himself.

“The government is exhausted, and we have no opportunity to educate anyone about what they have done,” the prime minister said on Sunday. “We have educated them for decades about the consequences of this problem; why are there still such officials?”

Various authorities across provinces and government units sprung into action following Hun Sen’s public audio message, with the military police posting frequent social media updates of its forces gathered at headquarters or riding boats through floodplains.

In Battambang, provincial military police sent seven people to court in connection with the clearing of flooded forest land in the Tonle Sap lake protected area.

Provincial military police commander Meas Sovann said on Wednesday that the seven were ordinary citizens, and named four of them as Nguon Kok, Nguon Vannak, Pep Hak and Kong Sorin.

Confiscated equipment included a tractor, trailer and boat, he said, but could not say how big of an area they had been clearing.

Cambodia Center for Human Rights land program coordinator Van Sophat said the government should apply the law equally between ordinary people and powerful officials who had encroached on flooded forests in the same Tonle Sap area.

“The people and authorities have been accused by the government of encroaching on the state land the same, but when the authorities come to confess they are acquitted, while the people are sent to court. This shows the inequality of rights before the law,” Sophat said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has previously warned of severe threats to the Tonle Sap’s floodplains, saying that the lake’s flooding creates habitats similar to coral reefs and “nurtures an incredible abundance of fish.” The environment is home to endangered species, including the hairy-nosed otter, and is one of the world’s largest inland fisheries, the group has said.

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