Kampot governor Mao Thonin held a public forum to address citizens’ grievances, mostly stemming from land disputes in the coastal province, with the governor coming highly recommended for his ability to resolve land conflicts.
Thonin was sworn-in as Kampot’s new governor two weeks ago by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, replacing Cheav Tay who took over the stewardship of Pursat. Kheng heaped praise on Thonin and his “Pursat model” to solve land disputes amicably with the residents.
“So, I request that the Pursat strategy has to be done and other provinces can do it. It would be good. … And the district governor and commune chief can do it when the issues are related to them,” Kheng said while in Kampot on October 13.
So, Thonin didn’t waste any time and organized his first public forum on Sunday, which was captured in a nearly 90-minute Youtube video. In an open space, around 100 Kampot residents sat under a pink and white tent. Thonin sat at a table, with provincial officials standing behind and notebooks, documents and maps before him.
One by one, residents approached a microphone stand, aired their grievances and Thonin responded, often looking to his officials to get more information about the case.
The governor set a few rules for the forum.
“People should not exaggerate and make illegal documents to take advantage of each other, and I ask people to speak the truth and end the problems,” he said.
The disputes start pouring in and deal with enforcement of land sales, discrepancies in land ownership, local officials’ behavior towards residents and titling – a persistent issue affecting rural and minority communities in dispute with business interests.
Bou Chanthoeun was up first, detailing a land sale in which she later found out there were two separate owners of the land, resulting in a dispute with four families on that land. Up next, Nen Saroeun, a land broker, also talked about attempting to buy land from 20 families, but only 19 agreed, and later he encountered a related issue with the titling the area.
Thonin confidently said that he has reviewed the documents in the disputes and that they could not convert agricultural land to residential if the plot size exceeded three hectares – turning to the local land management official for confirmation of his assessment.
In a rare display of seeming accountability, Thonin didn’t hold back while chiding local officials for their shortcomings in certain cases.
“You are the parents and if you do not know about the law, how will you lead them? Sometimes children who fight with each other are not because of them but because of a lack of instructions from the parents,” he said, addressing his officials.
“What I see in this case is that it is not a big deal but we made it become bigger.”
“If they commit a mistake in the legal procedures, I have the right to punish the administration with discipline.”
Chhim Nan, who said her father was a commune chief since 1979, had her land caught in between a reservoir and a company that had claimed the land and cleared her palm trees. Her complaint was that local officials had not helped her or solved the dispute – even when she was allegedly attacked with an axe by a person linked to the company.
“I have requested [district land official] to solve the problem and he threw the [documents] at me and I told him that I support him every day to find justice for me and other people,” she said tearing up. “He told me that he never begged me to vote for him, and if I want to file a complaint with anybody, go ahead.”
Sunday’s forum ended with Thonin assuring the villagers that he will look into the complaints and investigate if officials had committed any offences, with residents thanking the governor and giving him a standing ovation.