Abandoned veterans’ land-grab nightmare

Seoun Sareth outside the makeshift shelter she and her family live in. KT/Ven Rathavong


The scheme sounded good for the 240 disabled and retired army and police veterans and their families.
The government built homes for them and promised a plot nearby on which to plant crops and support themselves.
But five years later they are still without their land.  Their hard lives have become even more difficult as they become embroiled in an ugly land-grab dispute.
More than 10 families from the original 240 have decided to sell their housing plots with the homes on them and move away. They simply could not survive in the area.
Another two families, who gave up waiting for land to be allocated to them for cultivation, sold their housing plots and decided to buy small plots on land allocated for the veterans.
This land was without a title and had not been released by the government but the families did not see any other option.
More than 120 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh is Techo Aphivat commune in Kampot province’s Chhuk district, where many houses made of concrete and wood were built for veterans as part of a social land concession (SLC). Most of the veterans there have disabilities and are amputees.
The initial plan was to build the 240 homes on 30-by-40 meter plots. A further hectare was to have been allocated for each family to supplement their pensions by cultivating cash crops.
However, none of the land for cultivation has been allocated and the veterans are in despair because ironically, they have become victims of land grabbing.
While many families sold their housing plots and left the area in frustration and despair, two families decided to buy and occupy land which was grabbed by villagers on the SLC that was meant for the veterans.
They did this while waiting for their hectare of land.
Two ramshackle shelters, built of wood and galvanized steel sheets, sit on plots measuring 10 by 20 and 20 by 20 meters.
These plots were originally part of the SLC which has since been grabbed by enterprising and greedy villagers. There are no plantations or crops surrounding their new plots of land.
Moeun Doun Keo, 22, sits alone in his “new” house with his head shaved as a sign of respect for his mother, who died recently. His few possessions are a motorbike, a bed and some small items.
“My mother had cancer. If I had not sold the plot given to us by the government, how could I have had money for her treatment,” Mr. Doun Keo said, adding that his father who was a retired soldier had also died many years ago.
In his house, which has no chairs or tables, he sits on his bed, saying he needs the cultivatable land which was to have been inherited from his father.
Mr. Doun Keo and his mother had lived on the housing plot for more than five years in the hope of getting the promised hectare. Now his mother and father have both died and he has yet to get any land he can live off.
A month ago when he sold the housing plot and the concrete house the government had given his family, the best price he could get was $4,000. He spent that money on treatment for his mother’s cancer treatment.
Mr. Keo acknowledged that he grabbed the plot he was now living on and that it was on the SLC. A nearby plot of 1.5 hectares with a concrete house on it nearby recently sold for $120,000.
“I had no choice but to grab land because I did not have money to buy any land. I have nothing besides the money which remains from selling my family’s plot of land,” he said. “I feel very lonely.”
He confirmed that he bought his plot of land from a man named Thy for about $600 and spent about $700 building his house. He was assured there would be no problems with his new plot.
Mr. Doun Keo earns some money by clearing land for other villagers or they hire him to harvest or plant crops. He can earn about 25,000 riel (about $6) per day.
Villagers say Mr. Thy, who is also known as Phin Thy, is a member of the commune council at Techo Aphivat. Villagers claim that he illegally sold many plots of land in that area.
Seoun Sareth, 37, is a member of another veteran’s family. Her father-in-law was a policeman in the Interior Ministry, and she lives with her family near Mr. Doun Keo’s house.
Ms. Sareth was sitting in a wooden chair under a makeshift shelter temporarily located on another landowner’s plot while a new wooden house is being constructed for her family on a plot measuring 20 by 20 meters.
Ms. Sareth told Khmer Times that her 10-year-old daughter and her husband were sleeping in their temporary cottage, which has a battery for power, a solar-lamp and a few household items. One of her legs was badly swollen and covered with open ulcers.
Ms. Sareth tried to hold back her tears as she told Khmer Times that her father-in-law had died three months ago.
“We received an inheritance from my deceased father-in-law, comprising a wooden house on a land plot measuring 30-by-40 meters,” she said.
“We decided to sell it due to my family’s poor living conditions, which kept getting harder and harder because I have been suffering from various illnesses such as nephritic syndrome and ascites, while my husband is suffering from diabetes.
“We sold the inherited house for $5,000 just to pay for medical expenses and also to settle loans at micro-finance institutes. And now we bought new land on a plot measuring 20-by-20 meters at a cost of $1,000.”
Ms. Sareth, who struggled to speak because of a respiratory disease, said, “We have been waiting for a resolution from the government that they promised to grant an additional one hectare of land to cultivate for each of the retired veterans. But until now we still have nothing to cultivate and make a living from.
“If we got this land to cultivate my family would have better living conditions.”
Ms. Sareth’s and Mr. Doun Keo’s plots were bought from Mr. Thy and are on land meant for the veterans.
According to a representative of the veterans, more than 10 families have sold their housing plots and moved out and none can confirm whether the sale or the purchase is legal.
“With the buying or selling of every housing plot with a house built on it, the authority did not issue any letter for us. However we are the neighbors, we gave thumb prints as witnesses to recognize that they sold the land,” said the representative, who did not wish to be named.
He added that they had no choice, so as a neighbor and representative, he and another four or five veterans provided thumb prints on the contract. The buyers were from Phnom Penh and other veterans.
Captain Mao Mardy, the commune police chief, said that neither local villagers nor veterans had any land title.
He added that Ms. Sareth’s husband bought a new plot of land from Mr. Thy, who is a commune council member.
The plots bought by the two families had already been measured and were meant for the veterans, but it was grabbed by Mr. Thy’s children.
Cap. Mardy confirmed that Mr. Thy had grabbed and sold many plots of land on the SLC. Provincial authorities told Khmer Times that they set some mechanisms in place to resolve the problem in order to allocate land for the veterans to cultivate.
Deputy provincial governor Sim Vuthea said the SLC project had not been completed and the granting of land was not fully completed.
“We have not finished, so if they sold it, they need to be responsible for it by themselves,” he said, adding that the management and distribution of that SLC is handled by the Land Management Ministry.
“The buyers and sellers are illegal and the new buyers would not be added to the list to get land titles,” he said.
“If those veterans have been qualified to get the land, the buyers would not get land titles. Furthermore, this SLC is not completed yet, so we required them to control their plot of land.”

Source: Khmer Times