Seemingly making good on promises of reform, newly appointed Minister of Land Management Chea Sophara appears to have intervened in a nearly 20-year-old land dispute on behalf of 16 families in Tbong Khmum province’s Suong town, who on Sunday wrote a letter to thank him.
According to the letter, the villagers had been locked in a land dispute with the Vihea To Tem pagoda, which they claimed encroached on property that they had occupied – albeit without land titles – for decades. However, the dispute was swiftly resolved after Sophara visited the area and reviewed the documents, they said.
“We were very surprised when the local authorities came to our houses to give land titles to 16 families,” the community’s letter reads.
Fifty-three-year-old Young Tong, one of the villagers involved, said the families had lived there since 1984, but later on the pagoda was given part of their land
“We had a land dispute with the pagoda for nearly 20 years . . . the land management [ministry] solved this problem,” he said. “They gave the land title to us; we are surprised.”
Se Tha, director of the Land Management Ministry’s Tbong Khmum provincial office, explained that “the officials came to study the history of the land dispute to find that the villagers really live there”, he said. “It is a good point to find a solution for the villagers.”
Suong Town Governor Choung Pearum, echoed Tha’s sentiment.
“The villagers came to live in the area before there was a pagoda,” he said. “It is a good move, to find justice over a land dispute for the villagers.”
When Minister of Land Management Chea Sophara took office on April 5, he promised to strengthen public social services “in a timely manner”, as well as a push to process land registration, which in the past has been widely criticised as being slow and fraught with inconsistency.
However, Ee Sarom, executive director of housing rights group STT, yesterday said this was not the first time a land management minister had intervened in such fashion, and remained sceptical over the promise of reform.
“Let’s wait and see,” he said, adding that the ministry “should try to solve the big disputes, not only small ones”.
“Last week thousands of people were out in the street in Phnom Penh, gathering from Tbong Khmum to petition,” he said, referring to a Wednesday protest that saw families from Memot gather in the capital to petition the government over disputes with powerful private interests. “There’s no history of trust.”
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon