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Villagers, Soldiers Clash Over Land

[Editor's note: In the weeks leading into national polls, VOA Khmer will explore a wide number of election issues. The "Election Issues 2008" series will air stories on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a related "Hello VOA" guest on Thursday. This is the first in a two-part series examining concerns of rural voters.]

In Battambang province’s Kos Krol district, 415 families are waiting for a solution to a land conflict they say stems from former Khmer Rouge who are now part of the armed forces.

More than 50 kilometers outside of Battambang town, along a red, dusty road, the families of Dung Ba commune live in homes of thatched roofs behind walls of blue plastic sheets or plywood.

Seng Sothy, a villager who has called this place home for nine years, said in early March, soldiers clashed with villagers, firing shots over their heads and sending them running into the night.

Soldiers here say they were protecting their land from a mob.

Seng Sothy says she has never seen a problem like this.

“They said to us that if we do not leave our houses, they will burn them and killed us all,” she told VOA Khmer. “We had to run into the forest at night.”

The land dispute, between resettling villagers and integrated former Khmer Rouge, is not unlike many across the country, as Cambodia undergoes a land price boom.

It is just one issue that rural Cambodians will face as they head to the polls in general elections in July.

Land that was once worth little except those who farmed it has become a premium, and residents here say the soldiers want to reclaim what they left when they folded into the government.

Vanna Ra, who abandoned the Khmer Rouge and joined the government in 1996, told VOA Khmer that armed villagers were trying to take land away from the soldiers, forcing them to defend themselves.

“The shooting was only to threaten them, because they wanted to hold a protest,” he said. “So we were only defending ourselves.”

Ang Dung, village chief of Kon Touth, where the clashes took place, said his was a new village, where hundreds of families now occupy a former battleground. They have lived here in safety since 1999, farming more than 1,000 hectares of land.

Vann Bo, another villager here, said high prices were driving the soldiers of Military Region Five to demand land they once controlled during the war.

“When our people did not want to leave, they came and shot at us,” she said. “We cannot sleep in the house, and go out and sleep out in the field, in the rain, in front of a police station.”

In Kong Chith, an investigator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights familiar with the conflict, said soldiers had used undue violence against the villagers.

“Intimidation seriously threatens people’s security,” he said. The soldiers’ “activities were very violent, and they abused the law on human rights.”

Chum Bunrong, spokesman for the National Land Dispute Authority, said he was not aware of the specific conflict in Battambang, but he encouraged those involved to file a complaint with his office.