Police Release Villagers Accused of Vandalism while Protecting Forest
- BY: Teng Yalirozy
- December 1, 2021 5:40 PM
Six village representatives have been released after they were detained for their part in protests against the military clearing trees in their community forest in Kampong Speu Province
PHNOM PENH--Police released six village representatives in Kampong Speu Province’s Oral Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary on Dec. 1 after they were summoned yesterday for their role in a protest against the armed forces who have been clearing community forestland.
Over 600 villagers yesterday gathered in front of the Kampong Speu Provincial Police station to support the six representatives of the villagers who were summoned, accused of vandalism, public intimidation, and public insult. The villagers gathered out of fear that the six representatives might be arrested and imprisoned.
Khorn Sarith, one of the six representatives, said his team has been sued with vandalism, intimidation and publicly insulting, as he and the villagers disrupted the army's clearing of forest land back in October 2021.
“When we went to stop them from razing the forest, we did not destroy their property or insult them,” he said.
Kampong Speu Provincial Police Chief Sam Samoun said that the interrogation was called off because the person in charge was busy.
He said he did not know when or if the six representatives would be summoned for interrogation again.
“Go ask them, don’t ask me,” he retorted when asked who lodged the complaint against the villagers. “The authorities took action because someone filed a complaint against them regarding property damage.”
He did not know who filed the complaint or what was allegedly damaged.
Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 23, 2021, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) arrived to clear forested land in Udom Sre Pus Community Forest, also known as the Metta Nature Forest, near the village of Poumeas in Trapeang Chour Commune, Oral District, Kampong Speu Province.
Sarith, the village representative, said RCAF soldiers came bearing a sub-decree issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen which granted 260.24 hectares of the 2,443-hectare forest to several military families.
It was not the first time that the forest land was said to be legally handed over. The forest sanctuary was first privatized by the government and given to Chinese sugarcane company HLH group who began clearing land in 2009, Sarith said.
“The authorities always say that land has been cut and given to others, so do not protest,” he said.
The 2,443-forest area has been recognized as a community forest in 2003, with the acknowledgment of the Provincial Department of Environment, Sarith said.
He said 78 hectares of the forest were previously given to 12 military families, but he has seen only one family come to claim it, while he doesn’t know what the owners do with the rest of the land.
To prevent more forest loss, he and villagers stood up to protest when they RCAF troops coming to clear the forest again on October 2021. Subsequently, Sarith and the other five village reps have been sued, he said.
Chhon Thea, another representative, said that during the incident, he saw one bulldozer and a few pieces of machinery enter the community forest, which prompted about 100 villagers—including himself—to come out and stop the deforestation.
“The job for the community is to protect the forest, but suddenly there was a letter issued for the soldiers to come in with bulldozers. I do not understand the authorities,” he said.
He said only 887 hectares of community land remains and if the authorities continue to pressure villagers who protect the forest, it will all be gone soon.
“We want to preserve the natural resources and the forest so that we can raise our cows and find vegetables,” Thea said. “The forest provides essential biodiversity for villagers.”
Kampong Speu Provincial Governor Vei Samnang said that the state gave the land to the villagers, but can just as easily take it back when necessary.
“The community land is the government’s land,” he said. “It does not mean that we give the land to them exclusively. The government has the right to take it back. Do not think that the community land is your land.”
However, he said, he will strive to monitor the situation as much as possible and address the problems so that local people can still enjoy the benefits of the forest.
Khon Khorn, a resident of Poumeas Village who took part in yesterday’s protest, said all of the families in the Trapeang Chour Commune depend on the Metta Nature Forest to live, as the villagers can herd their cows, find firewood and vegetables. There is even a pagoda in the forest where monks live to be close to nature, she added.
“The forest is the only place that we can raise our cows and find vegetables to eat,” she said. “The monks live in the forest with all species of wild animals. The monks are also disappointed, but they do not know what to do. The lives of our people will deteriorate if we do not raise cows and the forest is gone.”
She and other villagers called on Hun Sen to intervene as he had recently in the Tonle Sap region’s flooded forest, but chiefly, she said she wanted to see the forests preserved for generations to come.