Some 70 villagers from Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district petitioned the Land Ministry yesterday to halt the issuance of a land title for a former Chinese cemetery to a local Chinese association, saying the land for the graveyard was merely on loan.
The complex dispute dates back to 1987, when villagers in Trapaing Krasaing commune say the land was first “borrowed” by the Chinese Hok Kien Association.
Villagers estimate more than 1,000 bodies were interred on the site. Gravedigger-turned-grave-undoer Phorn Pley, 64, says relatives were informed they needed to start bringing up the bodies of the deceased as early as 1996. The coffins were relocated to Kampong Speu, and by 2011 the site was clear of corpses.
Pley, with a wiry frame, two gold teeth and a string of spiritual tattoos on his chest, adamantly believes the land belongs to the Chinese association. He has been a caretaker for the site since 1993, preventing cows from damaging headstones.
But Bun Kai – a Trapaing Krasaing commune resident who is himself a member of the Chinese association – disagreed, saying the land was actually owned by more than 50 local families, including his own.
Kai, 59, yesterday produced a photocopied, handwritten document purportedly showing that the association had been permitted to use the land in 1990 in exchange for a motorbike.
The document, which does not bear an official commune authority stamp, described the agreement as “mutually beneficial”, but specifies that “the commune authority did not sell the land to the association”.
Although a member of the association, Kai said he disagreed with moves by fellow member Seng Siheng to obtain a land title and sell the 18-hectare plot.
“He wants to sell it and keep the money for himself . . . What I want is for Prime Minister Hun Sen to provide justice to the villagers,” Kai said.
Siheng was unable to speak yesterday due to poor health. His wife, Ha Sivhouy, said she did not remember precisely when the association purchased the land or for how much, but nonetheless poured cold water on the villagers’ claims.
“How could we borrow the land for that long? It is not reasonable,” she said. “The last four years we had a dispute from You Chantha, who claimed the land belonged to her. Now that it is solved, the villagers claim that we borrowed the land.”
Kai produced another two documents, dated May 2017 and signed by the commune chief, asserting that the land had not been sold to Chantha, a prominent businesswoman.
Chantha’s legal battle with the Chinese association dates to at least 2007, and she was arrested in 2015 for clearing 17 hectares of the land in question, despite the ongoing dispute. In January 2017, the Justice Ministry announced it would investigate claims she allegedly faked documents claiming ownership to a Preah Sihanouk man’s property, burned down his house and had his children arrested.
The Ministry of Land Management, in a document issued earlier this month, rejected her request to terminate the issuance of a land title for the Chinese Hok Kien Association, and asked the department to continue processing the land title for them.
But villagers in Trapaing Krasaing commune objected, saying that the land did not belong to the association, but to the community.
“We were very surprised, that’s why we went to the ministry,” Kai said.
Land Ministry spokesman Seng Lot confirmed he had received the petition from the people, saying his team would determine who had rights to the land.