Cambodia: Indigenous Jarai take out legal case to reclaim their land

28 Mar

Keat Kolney, a Cambodian businesswoman with very close links to the government, has tricked villagers in Ratanakiri province out of their land. Villagers are fighting back through the courts.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 116, March 2007.

Loss of land and loss of access to natural resources is fuelling a livelihood and economic crisis among Cambodia’s rural communities. “People are being dispossessed from their lands by those with political power and money,” writes Shalmali Guttal in a recent report for Focus on the Global South.

Loss of land translates into “hunger, cash-poverty, poor health and destitution for rural communities”, notes Guttal. When indigenous communities lose their land, their livelihoods, culture and tradition are also destroyed. “The loss of traditional/local territories among indigenous communities results in extremely severe consequences including sickness, destitution and even death.”

By 2004, private companies had taken control of 2.7 million hectares of land under concession contracts. Included in this figure are “economic land concessions”, used for industrial plantations, mining and oil exploration, fishing and tourism. In many cases concessions are established on villagers’ land. Resistance is met by bribes to village leaders, often followed by displays of violence from the police, military or private armed security guards.

Some of the most blatant land grabbing has taken place in Ratanakiri Province in north-east Cambodia. The indigenous Jarai villages of Kong Yu and Kong Thom in O’Yadao district provide a snapshot of what is happening throughout the country.

In the last three years, the Jarai have seen their land bulldozed to make way for a 500 hectare rubber plantation. A sign on a gate to the plantation at Kong Yu village reads, “No entry without authorisation”.

The concession is owned by Keat Kolney, the sister of the Cambodian Finance Minister, Keat Chhon. Keat Kolney’s husband is Chhan Saphan, the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Land Management. Local authorities forced the deal through using threats, deception and fraud. Some Commune Council members have admitted publicly to accepting bribes to ensure that the land transaction goes through.

In early 2004, when commune officials first asked them to sell their land, villagers refused. Officials then returned with a story that Prime Minister Hun Sen needed the land for disabled soldiers and that the villagers had no rights to the land. The villagers, who were unsure of their rights and reluctant to create problems with the prime minister or the army, agreed to hand over 50 hectares of land.

In August 2004, officials held a party for the villagers, plying them with pork, beer and two large jars of rice wine. Once the party was well under way, officials collected villagers’ thumb prints in red ink. A week later, together with Keat Kolney, officials distributed presents to villagers including sarongs and money. Villagers were asked to thumbprint documents that they didn’t understand.

“They told us if we did not agree with the land sale or accept the money they would take it anyway without pay or [even] one grain of salt,” Sayo Tem, a Jarai villager, told the Phnom Penh Post.

By the time the bulldozers started clearing their land and forest, villagers realised that they had been tricked. The land had been transferred to Keat Kolney, not to disabled soldiers and the area was 500 hectares, ten times the area previously discussed. Kong Yu villagers filed a complaint with the local administrative offices.

In February 2006, 200 villagers gathered at the local commune office to ask for information about the company clearing their land and to voice their concerns. Officials accused villagers of causing social unrest and military police threatened to arrest villagers if any further demonstrations took place.

On 23 January 2007, the Community Legal Education Center and Legal Aid of Cambodia filed a lawsuit at the request of villagers to attempt to regain possession of their land.

In Sam Ath, a representative of Keat Kolney, argues that the thumb prints show that the transaction is legal. “Provincial authorities hold up our plantation as an example for newer investors,” he told the Cambodia Daily.

In fact, Cambodian contract law requires contracts to be signed freely, among informed parties without fraud, deception or duress. The Land Law includes protection for indigenous land, including recognition of collective ownership. Management of land, including transfer of rights, must be free of official interference. Accepting bribes, to which several officials have admitted, is also illegal.

“Ratanakiri is in crisis now,” says Ngy San, the deputy 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.”

CLEC is asking for letters in support of the Kong Yu and Kong Thom villagers to Prime Minister Hun Sen and to Ambassadors in Cambodia. Sample letters are available here.

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