On June 7, an inter-ministerial committee convened a meeting to discuss ways to quickly bring about a solution to a land dispute that erupted into violence on June 3 at the Chamkar Barang area in Tuol Prich commune of Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district.

Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophoan told The Post on June 7 that resolving the land dispute, which involves state land, would not require much additional time because they have already formed a committee that just needs to review the facts to reach a decision.

“The inter-ministerial committee also discussed how to encourage the people involved in the land dispute to cooperate with the government to resolve this situation as soon as possible, principally through the payment of cash settlements,” he said.

The land would be of great benefit to the nation, Sophoan said, pointing to potential military uses, such as for engineering facilities, or setting up solid and liquid waste processing plants and other installations.

He said that according to the inter-ministerial committee’s findings, the size of the area will be clearly defined in accordance with the law and the committee will set out a solution policy plan for affected people, with a practical assessment made of the number of people who depend on it to separate them out from those who had no real connection to the land in question but still incited protests over it.

The committee will also establish formal procedures to summon those who create further problems related to the land for educational guidance, but serious cases of wrongdoing will still be prosecuted through the courts as per procedures.

Sophoan said the government does not want people to rely on the land anymore because it no longer provided much economic potential to them.

“For the affected people, the situation is now better and the state will address the issue of medical treatment and provide some funds to them to improve their living conditions, but perpetrators of mischief will be investigated and brought to court,” he said.

The inter-ministerial meeting took place after more than 100 families gathered on June 3 to protest over disputed state land known as Chamkar Barang (French plantations).

The violence occurred between protesters and soldiers and culminated in a local villager named Mom Chantha, 56, being shot in the shoulder and then rushed to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.

On June 4, The Post visited the disputed land and saw nearly 100 people protesting under trees and guarding machinery to prevent land clearance. They said they were protesting because soldiers had shot Chantha and taken the land away from the people who had been depending on it for many years amid rising land prices locally.

Protesters demand compensation from the government for more than 300ha of disputed land. Heng Chivoan

The Post also travelled to the soldiers’ encampment about 1km away from the protesters and attempted to secure interviews with them but none of the soldiers would comment on the situation to the press.

“My superior isn’t here and nobody else will dare to speak about it,” said a soldier at the scene who asked not to be named.

Koam Rith, 40, a resident of Tuol Prich commune’s Ang Ta Set village, told The Post on June 6 that after a three-day protest that prevented the military bulldozers from proceeding to clear land on which the residents had relied, they had temporarily suspended their activities on June 6 after provincial administration officials went to each resident’s house in the disputed area to tell them that they will seek a solution to the conflict and would not allow the bulldozers to continue their work.

Rith said the provincial hall had advised the commune and village authorities to request that the villagers stop protesting on the evening of June 5. They confirmed that provincial governor Sophoan would work to find solutions for the affected citizens.

“Now my villagers are sitting and looking at each other, waiting for the solution. They are calmer than they were before, but calmer isn’t the same as calm,” Rith said without elaborating.

Tuol Prich commune chief Chek Sophea told The Post that more than 100 people had been protesting for the past three days demanding compensation from the government for more than 300ha of disputed land.

Sophea said once a settlement is reached the villagers will allow the heavy machinery to dig canals or bulldoze the land as usual. But there is no solution yet and the soldiers took some machinery belonging to them so they came out to protest and this had led to an altercation between the two groups.

The reason given by the soldiers for the shooting was that the protesters were holding sticks and knives and throwing Molotov cocktails at the machinery, preventing the land clearing work from going forward.

“This land dispute has been going on for two or three years. Over 300ha was given to the Ministry of National Defence and the Ministry of Environment by the government’s sub-decree. But I do not know what these two ministries want to do with the land,” he said.

Yan Sokhen, a 40-year-old villager in Tuol Prich commune’s Ang Ta Set village, said residents would continue to protest until an acceptable solution was found.

She said that although the people did not have a title or deed to the land, they had been farming the land since 1979 – until they were suddenly banned by the military.

“People have been asking the authorities for land titles since I was 18, and I am now 40. But they have not given us titles, claiming it is state land. Some villagers have planted rice on the land since childhood,” she said.

Similarly, Nouch Heng, a 50-year-old Ang Sre Po villager and a relative of the protester who was shot, said people have been farming on the French plantation all the way back to their ancestors up until now until these soldiers arrived and tried to stop them.

Heng said the government has allowed people to farm there since 1979, but now they had been stopped by soldiers.

Phann Phan, deputy chief of Ang Ta Set village, said the protesters were from seven villages – Kuol, Thlong, Ang Ta Set, Prey Toteung, Kraing Krouch, Ang Sre Po, Tuol Serey villages – all in Ang Snuol district’s Tuol Prich commune.

Phan said some of the villagers had 1ha of land while others have plots of a smaller size which they had depended on since the end of the Pol Pot-era to the present.

“People have been farming here since I was little. Since I was born they have been living off of this land and now I am in my fifties,” he said.

Regarding the history of the land, Tuol Prich commune chief Yun Sokhom said the local residents have been relying on it for three generations – from the time of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum.

The Sangkum Reastr Niyum era was from 1955 to 1970 under the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk. Sokhom said this plantation was state land back then and that the government planted the trees there.

From 1970 to 1979 – due to Cambodia’s intense upheaval in that period – the land was not being actively cultivated by anyone.

Then in 1979 the previous residents returned and cleared the remaining forestland for firewood and to convert it into farmland – only to see the Forestry Administration take control of the land in 1983 without ever allocating any of it to any citizens as private property.

He added that after 1983 people still farmed the land but the Tuol Prich commune administration never dared to issue any legal titles or certificates because it had been designated as state land, despite the local residents requests.

“People have the right to farm on this land, but they do not have right to sell it or use it for other business purposes. Even if they sold it in secret somehow, the commune would not acknowledge the sale or the buyer’s claim,” said Sokhom.

According to Sokhom, the late King Father had personally planted seedlings here such as the Thnong species and others. At the time of then-Prince Sihanouk’s visit, Sokhom was only 7 or 8 years old – and now he is over 70.

The protesters were from seven villages – Kuol, Thlong, Ang Ta Set, Prey Toteung, Kraing Krouch, Ang Sre Po, Tuol Serey villages – all in Ang Snuol district’s Tuol Prich commune. Heng Chivoan

Cambodia’s post-2000 era saw King Norodom Sihamoni planting luxury tree species on the land such as beng, rosewood, and neang nuon – but now only cassia and eucalyptus trees remained.

He added that the name Chamkar Barang or “French Plantation” was given to the land by the locals because in the French colonial-era, the French planted rubber trees here. The land also has a well that people call the “French Well” to this day.

The commune chief said that during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era there was a forestry supervisor or forest ranger that managed the land. Later, it remained under the control of the Forestry Administration under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – until the government’s recent handover of Chamkar Barang over to the defence and environment ministries.

He said the border posts in the area were planted at some point in the 1990’s, but there were no protests at that time.

Ly Vathana – director of the land management office in Ang Snoul district and a witness to what occurred on June 3 – told The Post that prior to the violence on May 30 the land dispute resolution committee had a meeting with the environment and defence ministries and the Ministry of Economy and Finance to mark the border of Chamkar Barang and determine how many families were actually depending on it.

He said that during the meeting, the second deputy chief of Tuol Prich commune said the local people did not object to the demarcation but he requested a solution for those affected because they have been farming on the land for a long time.

Vathana said the committee had asked defence minister Tea Banh for guidelines and submitted a letter to the Kandal Provincial Administration to initiate the process of setting border posts on the land.

He added that on the third day, about 200 families came out to protest with knives and sticks while about 20 to 30 soldiers present also carried sticks, two-way radios or walkie-talkies – as well as handguns.

“People said that if we do not take matters into our own hands, [the soldiers] will start to act like they do in Myanmar,” Vathana said.

“The soldiers fired into the ground, but the protesters were not afraid of their guns. Suddenly a man was injured and ran from the protest, but when the authorities asked to check his wounds, they did not allow them to and walked away from the scene,” he said.

According to Vathana, the plantation area was listed by the Forestry Administration as 410ha. But at the time of registration, it was 291ha.

According to the sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, 280ha of land was given to the environment and defence ministries and 25ha was given to people for agricultural use in 1996.

Pursuant to Letter No 755 of the Office of the Council of Ministers on August 13, 2020, it was agreed in principle to provide 2.8 million square metres of land located across five villages – Kuol, Thlong, Ang Ta Set, Prey Toteung and Kraing Krouch – in Ang Snuol district’s Tuol Prich commune.

This area is along National Road 51 and is privately owned by the defence ministry and any travel through it requires their coordination and permission.

Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the environment ministry, said he did not have any information on possible solutions yet. But he said he knew that the government had handed over the state land in the area to his ministry to prepare to build infrastructure for solid and liquid waste disposal facilities meant to serve Phnom Penh and the surrounding areas.

Defence ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat could not be reached for comment.

Ly Chantola, president of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC), said that according to the 2001 Land Law there is no land in Cambodia that does not have an owner. If land is not private land, it belongs to the state.

“According to the law, no matter how you happen to be using it or for how long, it cannot be owned privately if the state wants it back. But it can be made into a social land concession for them,” he said.