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Families Fear Loss of Land, Loved Ones

[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 land grabs in Cambodia.]

Sitting in front of her thatched-roof home in Kampong Chhnang province, about 1 kilometer off National Road 5, Sar Saing sat with a group of eight people. One woman carried a baby, and others sat on bicycles. At times, Sar Saing would seem happy, but then her face would darken.

Her father, Sar Song, has been incarcerated since Feb. 28, one of nearly 40 people rights groups say are currently being held in land disputes.

"Everyday, even though people do not sell their land, their land is grabbed," Sar Saing said. "The grabbers probably bribe the court officials to legally own the land of the people."

Rights groups say the trend of land-grabbing is continuing, at a high cost to many rural villagers, not only in land, but in the seizure of loved ones.

Victims say they fear corruption by courts, police, military and other government officials.

A spokesman for Cambodia's land dispute authority told VOA Khmer accusations of land grabs are being inflated ahead of July's general elections.

Numbers tell one story.

The price of land in Sar Saing's village, Lor Peang, has gone from $100 per hectare five years ago to $10,000 per hectare today, part of a nationwide land boom that has led to the increase in land theft.

The villagers here say they are in a fight for their land with a local company, known here by its initials, KDC.

Sar Saing's father was arrested with one other man and sentenced to eight months in jail by the Kampong Chhnang provincial court. A third man was charged in absentia but remains at large.

All three were charged with a violation of KDC's land ownership.

But villagers here, echoing the worries of many across the country, say they have had their land stolen.

A representative of KDC named Thai Hy brought in workers "who looked like gangsters" to remove villagers from the land, Sar Saing said.

A man claiming to be Thai Hy's brother denied the claims by phone recently, referring questions to the court.

Veng Hut, the provincial court's investigating judge, told VOA Khmer he had judged in accordance with the law and was not involved with corruption.

Lor Peang Village Chief Toch Ly said the government and provincial leaders must work to ensure the people are not removed from their land without proper compensation, though she acknowledged many of her residents felt victimized.

Chum Bun Rong, spokesman of the National Land Dispute Authority, defended the judicial and relevant institutions, saying officials were "almost getting sick" from hard work on many cases.

Nearly 700 land dispute cases were under review at the agency, he said.

But, he said, "there is no serious land dispute in the country."

"It is only a political issue being raised prior to the election," he said.

With elections to be held in July, Sar Pek, brother of Sar Saing and son of Sar Song, said he planned to vote, even if his father was in prison.

More numbers; another story.

A 2007 report by the aid agency Oxfam says about 63.7 percent of Cambodians are either landless or own less than half a hectare.

Of those who owned more land that that, about 30 percent were businessmen, 23 percent were high-ranking military officers and 23 percent were a special class of wealthy, known by the honorary title "Oknha," according to the report.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has pushed for land grabs to cease, but his warnings have apparently gone unheeded, as land grabs have continued across the country, including in Phnom Penh.

In February this year at least 10 families in the Prek Leab commune of the capital's Russei Keo district lodged a complaint to Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema, fighting against the proposed widening of a road through the village.

Residents said they suspected a commune chief had sold the land to a private company, a claim the chief, Preab Mony, denied.

Land grabbing shot up between 2003 and 2006, the rights group Licadho reported.

The group had been monitoring 25 land-grab cases in 2003, but that number jumped to 112 in 2006.

More than 5,000 families lost their homes in land grabs in 2007, said Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s technical supervisor.

Land grabs have also turned more violent; two people were killed in Preah Vihear province in 2007, and six other people across the country were injured, Am Sam Ath said.

Ny Chakriya, head of Adhoc’s monitoring unit, said institutions like the Land Dispute Authority must resolve such disputes. The judicial system needs to take a strong position, he said.

Otherwise, he said, land disputes will become a more serious issue, leading to more deaths.