Pen Ean, a personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, has submitted a letter to Minister of Interior Sar Kheng requesting that the ministry review the case O’Raing district governor Seak Mony of Mondulkiri province and other officials in that district who allegedly conspired to take state land and the land of indigenous peoples for their own benefit.
In the letter submitted to the ministry on January 18, Ean said he had received information from Bunong indigenous people in Mondulkiri province that the O’Raing governor was abusing his power and threatening people to further a conspiracy to take state and indigenous land over for personal ownership and to sell to traders.
Ean alleges that Mony has not protected the legitimate interests of ordinary people and has only protected the rich and powerful in his role as district governor.
He continued that after receiving the information from the Bunong people, he had sent a team of lawyers to the district to confirm their account. They found that the indigenous land there was being encroached upon by wealthy and powerful people who were having fences built around it and were purporting to have titles of possession to it.
Some of the indigenous people already possessed titles to the land in question that were recognised by the local authorities in the past but now the district authorities were claiming that those documents were invalid.
“It is clear that the authorities know which land is legal and which land belongs to the state. But if they are acting out of selfish interest, then those who will suffer are the small and weak people who have no connections to power and can’t rely on the local authorities favouritism,” Ean’s letter reads.
Ean further stated that the Bunong people claimed that recently Monty had his subordinate officials falsify documents and provide thumbprints for the sale of some villagers’ land to businessman Srey Chanthou, who holds the honorific Oknha, while threatening other villagers that they would force the sale of their land as well so that rich people can turn it into pine tree plantations.
“I would like [Sar Kheng] to investigate this case thoroughly to ensure transparency and justice for all parties including the indigenous people and to punish any officials who have committed wrongdoing in order to protect the reputation and legitimacy of the government,” the letter concluded.
Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on January 24 that he did not yet know how the ministry would rule on the matter because he had yet to see the letter.
Mlou Ten, a representative of the people in Pou Chhop village of O’Raing district’s Dak Dam commune, said his land and that of seven other families totalling more than 30ha in the village had been allocated to Chanthou by the authorities without letting them know about it first.
He said he went to ask the district authorities to intervene to return the land back in 2019, but to no avail and with the matter just being repeatedly delayed to this day.
“The district governor said he would take care of it for me but I haven’t seen it happen. The matter has been delayed day after day and he then told me to go and claim land elsewhere.
“How do I go and claim land in another place when all of the land is owned? I won’t agree to this and I won’t give up my land. If I actually sold my land to someone else, then I would let them have it,” Ten said.
O’Raing governor Seak Mony said on January 24 that he had been working to solve the land issues in the district but everything has been put on hold because the forestry crime investigation team from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had recently inspected the area and reclaimed some of the land there.
“Actually, we are compromising on that point but until now – in all those areas – the agriculture ministry is reclaiming almost everything at this point. At the time, we didn’t know how to mediate so now we’ll just wait and see what happens first,” he said.
The governor added that Chanthou had negotiated and redressed the villagers’ grievances many times in order to be able to pursue his investment there, but they continued to cause him problems and whenever they have problems the locals do not bother talking to the district officials but go straight to people above them for intervention.
“We have already met and negotiated on this matter twice. We agreed to make actual measurements at the relevant places but when the time came we set up a commission to go do it and they didn’t show up. Now we’re left wondering – how can we solve this?” he said.