For the past year, Phnom Penh has weathered a string of well-publicized evictions, with poor, marginalized communities forced from their homes by a powerful, well-connected elite.
Less visible has been the land-grabbing in remote rural areas.
On January 23, a group of ethnic minority villagers initiated legal action against Keat Kolney, Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister, and seven others for their role in acquiring indigenous land in August 2004. They also filed a civil complaint demanding Kolney return 270 hectares of land.
"We came here to protest in order to get our land back," said Sal Chong, 65, representative of Kong Thom Village, in O’Yadao district on January 23. "Local authorities have threatened that whether we agree or not, all our land will taken away."
Around 45 families in Kong Yu and 25 families in neighboring Kong Thom - all of whom are members of the Jarai indigenous group - have been affected by the land dispute. Very few of the villagers speak Khmer; fewer still are literate.
"Ratanakkiri is in crisis now," said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum. "Land grabbing is out of control and it is devastating indigenous lives. Kong Yu is emblematic of the worst of these cases. It pits the interests of the rich and powerful against the needs of the poor. How this case is handled by the courts will be a litmus test for land disputes all across Cambodia."
According to information provided by the families’ lawyers - the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) - in August 2004, through a series of bribes, lies and intimidation, the indigenous community was divested of their ancestral lands by Keat Kolney.
After repeated threats and harassment, the Kong Yu and Kong Thom villagers were coerced into selling what they believed was 50 ha of land. Keat Kolney subsequently claimed that the deal involved 500 ha, CLEC said.
"The authorities do not have the right to transfer the land of people in the community," said Ith Mathoura, a CLEC lawyer who is representing the villagers. "The agreement between the commune authorities and Keat Kolney is illegal."
CLEC alleges that local officials were complicit in the process and say over $90,000 in bribes were paid to various officials to obtain their help in facilitating the deal. Members of the commune council organized the contract execution "party" where villagers were made to thumbprint documents after getting drunk on alcohol provided by the commune councillors, they say.
Indigenous lands such as those involved in the Kong Yu dispute are protected under the 2001 land law and cannot be privately owned, said Thun Saray, Chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) and president of a human rights NGO, Adhoc.
"The indigenous community land has been guaranteed and protected by law", he said. "No one shall be entitled to sell or take the land as private land or for personal ownership."
Keat Kolney’s representative, In Sam Ath, said on January 19 that the Kong Yu and Kong Thom villagers’ allegations are groundless and that the land sale was legal.
Original at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/TXT/current/stories/1602/jarai.htm