SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Additional details have emerged regarding the ongoing military takeover of a rural Cambodian village that started over a month ago. The 562 families involved hope a court will allow them to return to their own land soon. In addition, one of the imprisoned villagers may be released in a matter of days.
The village of Phnom Tebang Bantay Srey, north of Siem Reap, has been undergoing a gradual military takeover due to a supposed lack of land deeds. Those documents have since reappeared and the villagers hope that this will be what they need to re-acquire their land.
According to the village’s primary spokesperson Solina, previously they would have been content with each of the families having 5 hectares of land returned to them. However, they would now be satisfied with 1 hectare each, as the villagers primary source of food is their own crops. In this case, “They’ve backed off and are remaining patient as they await further developments from the courts.”
Solina says that she’s being sought by the police, primarily because she speaks English and can thus increase awareness of the villagers’ situation. However, she is not overly concerned for her individual safety. “They may threaten us with their guns, but they won’t shoot us. Here in Siem Reap they’re afraid of hurting us because of all the tourists. They’d lose out on lots of business [if word of any violence were to get out].”
However, other villagers are more wary of the police presence and want to take things one step at a time. Not helping things, however, is that what news has gotten out has been negative. According to village leader Chirn, ”The radio station [Asia Free Radio] is saying that we were abusing our own land [having roadblocks set up and burning forest land]. Why would we do that?”
He also said that the government considers the land to be valuable and has slowly been edging the villagers off their land for years. “Starting around 2011, they [the military] have been taking our land, an acre at a time. They do it slowly so we don’t get too alarmed too quickly.”
Another reporter who has been involved in researching the situation and who spoke to The Speaker on condition of anonymity said that he was disappointed with the reaction of a human rights NGO in Phnom Penh. “After I didn’t get much of a response from LICADHO [the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights], I decided to go it alone and help as much as I could independently.” He continues to hope that gradually additional food and water will be able to get to the villagers, who at this time are cautious to return to their land.
On a positive note, one of the imprisoned villagers may be released within a few days, possibly as early as Jan. 28, as the courts review her case. “We just have to be patient,” says Solina. “One day we will get our land back and not have to worry anymore.”
By Brett Scott