Three villagers will go to the Siem Reap Provincial Court starting Friday to answer to accusations of encroaching on a protected forest, but the three say the forest doesn’t exist — and was only listed as a protected area as part of an official scheme to grab land.
Their testimony at court marks only the latest step in a simmering dispute in Senchey village that villagers say has been ongoing for more than a decade. The lawsuit against the three is part of a series of counter-claims made in court regarding the Chob Som Nature Protection Area, a conservation community that locals claim was only created earlier this year and is controlled by a committee made up mostly of authority figures.
The disputed land is adjacent to the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary. Villagers allege their dispute has involved the military’s Region 4 forces, a division covering Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey, Preah Vihear and Kampong Thom.
The latest court developments began when provincial court prosecutor Chheng Hak Ngin issued a summons on June 7 for two citizens, San Sith and Svay Pov, to testify Friday about poles they’d erected to mark boundaries in the Chob Som area. Another prosecutor, Theng Samnang, summoned the third villager, Preng Hing, to testify on July 5 under the accusation of “clearing, burning and/or encroaching on the [protected] forest for ownership.”
Last week, Sith told VOD he was trying to sue four environmental officials — Huot To, Sao Khean, Siem Ponn and Hor Siveng — for removing fencing around the land he claims as his own in the area. He said the fenced-off land belonged to him for about 20 years, claiming it was recognized by local officials and that he had documents for his ownership.
San Sreng, the wife of Hing, said the court order stated her husband had been summoned for the second time, but said her family had never before received a summons. She said her husband has prepared himself and documents, and was innocent of the accusations leveled against him.
“This land is not forest land, we have been living on and enjoying it since the 2000s, the village authorities issued the title of occupation in 2002,” she said, explaining that she grew bananas, mangoes, cashews and cassava on 15 hectares of land.
“Please help us find justice. I have been living there for a long time.”
Fellow villager Sith told VOD on Wednesday that he would attend his court summons because he did not make any mistakes. At the same time, he questioned why the court did not take action on his own complaint.
“I wonder with this court case: They immediately removed my fence posts, then they sued me, and the court summoned me immediately,” Sith said.
“By the time I filed the complaint against the community for taking my land from long ago, the court did not seem to take any action or resolve it for us. So I just wonder why when officials file a complaint against the people [they] take action immediately? But when people file complaints to officials, why does it take so long?”
Siem Reap provincial environment director Sun Kong could not be reached on Wednesday.