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Authorities Steer Clear of Prosecuting Senator, Generals in Mondulkiri Land Grab

This unoccupied former wartime airfield is located in Sen Monorom city, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia, September 2020. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer).

A Cambodian People’s Party Senator, military generals, local officials, and commune chiefs have gotten off with only a rap on the knuckles after being involved in an attempted land grab in the northeastern province of Mondulkiri.

Since July, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has been overseeing an ad-hoc executive body to investigate rampant land grabs in the province, which he said could implicate “high-ranking officials.”

The investigation showed that around 10 public officials, including a sitting senator, a police general, two military generals, two district governors, a provincial government administrator, and three commune chiefs were investigated, according to the minutes of the committee on August 31 and signed by Sar Kheng.

Interior Ministry’s spokesperson Khieu Sopheak confirmed the authenticity of the minutes and names listed in it to VOA Khmer.

The senator was identified to be Noy Sron, who entered the Senate in 2018. The minutes conclude that Noy Sron “did use his position, power, and influence” on lower-level officials to register 531 hectares of state land.

Noy Sron was summoned to a meeting with Senate President Say Chhum and Vice Presidents Sim Ka and Tep Ngorn on September 23, in which he made “an apology seeking leniency for his mistakes regardless they were intentional or unintentional”, the Senate said in a statement on October 5.

The senator also sent a letter of apology to Prime Minister Hun Sen, providing an opaque account of his connection to the 531-hectare piece of land in Sen Monorom commune. Noy Sron, however, promised Hun Sen that he would hand over the land back to the state.

After strong public criticism, the Senate issued another statement on Wednesday distancing itself from Senator Noy Sron.

The Senate added that Noy Sron had not controlled and utilized the 531-hectare plot of land yet, since he was just in the early, and unsuccessful, process of requesting official permission to occupy the land. The Senate statement provides no explanation of why Noy Sron was able to make preliminary requests for registering the land.

“The institutional measures to instruct and educate [the senator] shall not obstruct the law enforcement process if the individual is found guilty,” the Senate said.

The Interior Ministry’s Khieu Sopheak refused to comment if this indicated that the senator could be prosecuted.

Eang Mengly, a provincial coordinator for the local rights group ADHOC, said land grabbing reports had accelerated since the government’s announcement of a new airport in the province in July last year.

“Powerful people started coming in and followed one another with a view that land in this region could easily be grabbed and occupied,” Eang Mengly said. “In fact, almost every piece of land in this province is state-owned.”

A view of Mondulkiri province in Cambodia, September 2020. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)
A view of Mondulkiri province in Cambodia, September 2020. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)

The land that involved the senator is located in Sen Monorom commune, where a reserved area was designated by the provincial government for a new 600-hectare airport project in the province.

Sen Monorom commune chief Thvan Trel and two other commune chiefs were disciplined – but not dismissed or prosecuted, said Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak.

“They are elected officials that they cannot be removed easily, so they face no other actions aside from administrative discipline of receiving oral instructions of blames and orders to undo their seemingly illegal decisions,” Khieu Sopheak told VOA Khmer.

Other officials named in the August 30 minutes were Sin Vannvuth, former governor of Mondulkiri’s Koh Nhek district, who was removed from his position in mid-September, and the provincial government’s deputy chief administrator Sok Sera, who was transferred to Interior Ministry last month.

The Unified Road Construction Unit 716’s Deputy Commander Brigadier General Deth Heang of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces was also named in the document.

National Defence Minister Tea Banh, who could not be reached for this article, told Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper that Deth Heang already received disciplinary action and had already returned to work. Deth Heang was tasked to take charge of the Defense Ministry’s construction of border roads.

Some arrests have been made thus far, including Major General Pov Sothearan, Deputy Chief of Interior Ministry’s Land Border Defense Police Department, who was placed in pretrial detention; and Former Justice Ministry’s Undersecretary of State Seng Sovannara.

“To avoid a scenario of being perceived as having double standards, those who break the laws should be responsible before the law accordingly -- no matter what position they are holding,” ADHOC’s Eang Mengly said.

Interior Ministry’s spokesperson Khieu Sopheak rejected this suggestion.

“Let the critics have their say,” Sopheak said. “They can speak whatever they want and we are the doers will keep doing our work. There is no law forbidding anyone from speaking in a free manner and with freedom of expression.”