Suit v countersuit in Preah Vihear

By: Phak Seangly

Members of a forest community and local officials in Preah Vihear province have renewed a legal battle over a small patch of woodland in Rovieng district after the villagers last year accused the officials and a landowner of illegally profiting from the protected area.

Three O’Por Beng Tonle Mrich community members filed a suit last year against two local officials and a businessman who they allege illegally purchased their land to clear it for profit.

After the court took no action, they petitioned the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh last month to investigate the case, prompting the accused to countersue, claiming that the three villagers had broken the law by squatting on the disputed land without permission from the local community.

The three villagers, however, were unperturbed, and took their case yesterday to the Court of Appeal in the hope that a higher tribunal may intervene.

“We represent 137 families suing [ex-community leader] Tep Tiv, the village chief [Sok Kong] and commune chief [Sou Sie] and [land broker] Meng Chhuong for clearing and selling more than 15 hectares of our forest,” community representative Huon Kinou said yesterday.

Romany commune chief Sie, however, disputed the villagers’ telling of events.

“It’s not true; we did not sell the land. Meng Chhuong owned it well before this community arrived. He bought it from locals.”

Ly Lon, chief provincial prosecutor, said that the court had not acted on the case because “the authorities were not involved”.

Lor Chan, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, called on the judiciary to “pay attention to the dispute before it escalates”.