Farmers Rip Out State-Land Posts: ‘If You Want to Arrest Us, It’s Up to You’

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A handful of protesters gather at a land dispute site in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district on January 25, 2021. (Mech Dara/VOD)
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District security, police and military police officers have been stationed at a Phnom Penh land dispute site where two groups of disputants — one Khmer, one Vietnamese — are pushing back against authorities in an area that borders land claimed by a senator and the national police chief.

“We’ve removed five [concrete] posts this morning,” said Bona, protesting at the Koh Meas site in Chbar Ampov district’s Kbal Koh commune on Monday. She declined to give her full name. “This morning they said anyone who dares to remove the posts, they will send to jail. They threatened us. And I reply that you’ve come and built the posts in the middle of the road I travel on, so we’ll need to remove them. If you want to arrest us, it’s up to you.”

The posts, erected in recent weeks, mark about 30 hectares of state land along the Mekong river that hundreds of families say they have farmed for over a decade.

Bona said local administrative officials should be backing their residents. “Where are the local authorities? When there’s an election campaign they come and ask us to vote. Why do they take the side of oknha and senior officials now?”

Khy Song, a deputy Kbal Koh commune chief, acknowledged that National Police chief Neth Savoeun and Senator Kok An had claims to land nearby that they had bought from “upper levels,” but denied that the families had any right to the area.

“It’s state land. Ask them whether they have any documents or not,” Song said, disputing that the families were even using the land. “There has been no farming.”

On Monday, two tents that had been set up to station security officers, including police and military police, could be seen in the area, nearby several plots being farmed for rice. Residents said the tents had been erected on January 18.

On that day, officers beat a Vietnamese woman protesting the recent demarcations. The protesters have been split into two camps by ethnicity, with about 150 Khmer families on one side and a greater number of Vietnamese families on the other.

“After they beat one of the women’s heads, they agreed to give 12 meters for the villagers,” said Srey Vy, one of the Vietnamese disputants, about how authorities widened the area being set aside for his community by more than 10 meters.

The elderly woman who was struck, who only gave her name as Theath, said the district governor had come to apologize.

“But the one who hit me didn’t come to apologize,” she said. “We are suffering and in pain. We used to be happy in this location, but they’re taking it from us, and we can’t do anything to stop them because we are Vietnamese and have no rights.”

One of the Khmer protesters, Chorn David, said they were inflamed by seeing the preferential treatment given to the powerful people with claims in the area.

“They don’t take their land. Why do they come to take the people’s?” David asked. “If the state needs it, we won’t be opposed to it but they need to give reasonable compensation.”

He also asked for greater transparency.

“Why don’t they take the land over there? Instead they come to kick out the people on such small land, and hurt us,” he said. “They think that the people are weak, so they take from us.”

Officers have been stationed at a land dispute site in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district, on January 25, 2021. (Mech Dara/VOD)
Officers have been stationed at a land dispute site in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district, on January 25, 2021. (Mech Dara/VOD)

Deputy district governor Nop Pha said he had not received any current information about the dispute.

Chhim Ry, 73, said the Khmer protesters also needed to get injured so they can get a better deal.

“All the forces [and officials] who get their salaries from the people should protect [the people]. Who do they serve?” Ry said. “For me, I’ve lost faith in the local government.”

“Let’s burn the machinery,” he added. “If there are no injuries, Samdech will not know what’s happening.”

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