Cambodian villagers cry foul over loss of land to Vietnam

PHUM PREY TUOL, Cambodia – The goosebumps prickle on the arms of Cambodian rice farmer Em Chouen when he recalls how he lost his land, allegedly to Vietnamese soldiers who beat him with iron rods.

"I was ploughing my fields when the Vietnamese came and accused me of taking the land," he says, speaking at a neighbour’s home in this village in southeastern Cambodia, about 300 metres (yards) from the official border with Vietnam.

"Later they said they wanted to take my buffalo too, so they beat me," the softly-spoken 35-year-old claims, adding that he lost his two hectares (five acres) of rice-paddy in the incident 2003 and was so badly injured he could not work for a month.

Villagers here say encroachment by their more powerful neighbours began in 1979, the year Vietnam toppled the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and has continued, field by field, since then.

They allege that Cambodian authorities have taken scant action to claw back the pancake-flat territory, where sugar palms spike the large skies and water buffalo crouch in shallow roadside ponds to escape the tropical heat.

Activists in the provincial capital Svay Rieng, who have collected complaints over the years, say the land seizures here are the worst in the province, one of several with a border fronting Vietnam.

The long-disputed zones, including areas on the Lao and Thai borders, have been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks with ex-king Norodom Sihanouk complaining about inadequate demarcations and encroachment.

The former monarch has for years accused Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government of handing over land in particular to Vietnam, which backed its rise to power after the Khmer Rouge and with whom it retains close links.

The outspoken Sihanouk, who abdicated in October last year, is chairing a new national border council which is supposed to advise the government on firming up borders, but has no independent power.

Frustrated, the cancer-stricken 82-year-old, who has been in Beijing since January receiving medical treatment and is now undergoing chemotherapy, has asked Cambodians to report their concerns about shrinking borders to him.

The issue stretches back centuries to when the Vietnamese advanced into Cambodian territory in the Mekong Delta.

Disputes were not helped by the destruction of land records under the anti-capitalist Khmer Rouge and are heightened by a vein of anti-Vietnamese sentiment that easily flares in the impoverished kingdom.

In Prey Tuol village, a cluster of wooden-and-thatch homes shaded by banana and coconut palms and passed regularly by smugglers on motorbikes weighed down by enormous loads of Vietnamese petrol and consumer goods, people need little prompting to tell their tales.

Pok Puth, a 65-year-old with cropped grey hair and mismatched rubber thongs, claims he used to plough five hectares of rice paddy now located three kilometres (two miles) deep inside Vietnam.

"The local authorities gave us back land (as compensation, in 2001) but it’s too far from here and we couldn’t grow rice on it because there are trees there," says the father of eight.

"The land now does not belong to us. Some powerful and rich people later occupied it and built strong gates and fences."

Repeated complaints to the government have fallen on deaf ears, he claims.

"The local authorities told us that they have given us back land and that from now on we have to stop saying that Vietnam grabbed our land. But how can we survive, when our farming land is grabbed by Vietnam and the new land is taken by the powerful and rich?"

In the seven villages in the area, most people have lost at least some of their farmland, the villagers here allege.

Some send their children to Phnom Penh to work in garment factories. Others move to Vietnam, where they work herding buffalo and still others travel across the border daily to harvest sugar cane, earning a dollar a day.

At the Cambodian border checkpoint, a guard says problems occur every rainy season when Cambodians turn up to farm their land but are met by armed Vietnamese who warn them against planting crops.

"Sometimes there are confrontations. People carry machetes and axes" when they go to the fields, he says, clamming up however when a man in civilian clothes identifying himself as his superior appears.

Like Em Chouen, farmer Prum Nan, 40, was involved in such a clash in 2000.

"One day I was planting my rice fields from eight to midday and suddenly the Vietnamese forces arrived, armed with electric batons … Everybody was running, and I received a shock in my back," she says.

"Our police warned me that if I persisted to grow rice and a dispute resulted in me being shot… then they would not be responsible, they would not help me."

For Prum Nan, the setting up of the new border council offers hope, even if analysts mostly believe it is unlikely to result in any resolutions.

"We are still optimistic that the king-father (Sihanouk) will be able to solve this issue. People did not have hope when he was not involved, but now he is the chairman, they do," she says.

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