Soldiers burned their house to the ground

by John Einar Sandvand on March 19, 2009

It happened without warning: Soldiers and hired thugs burned their house to the ground. The reason: A military officer wanted their land for himself.

Pheun Chamroeun and Koy Koeurn

Pheun Chamroeun and Koy Koeurn.

This is a story about how military officers grab the land of poor people in Cambodia. Land ownership in this country is often a grey zone, and officers and other powerful people tend to grap property to their own behalf without following formal procedures.

It happened in Ta Khor village as well.

The area, located an hour south of Battambang, used to be forest land. However, poor farmers from other parts of Cambodia arrived and started cultivating the land. They considered this to be their only chance to make a living.

Together the farmers formed a village and organized their lives together. They built houses and found ways to sell their crops. Finally they were seeing a future for themselves.

This worked out well for a few years – until a military officer suddenly showed up claiming to own the land. Soon he would use his soldiers for his own personal gain to threaten the poor farmers, trying to force them to leave.

They farmers refused, believing that the land law gave them the right to continue living on the land.

Then came March 4th, 2003.

Armed soldiers together with hired thugs entered the village carrying gasoline and lighters. 30 houses were burned to the ground.
- I was frightened, said Koy Koeurn (27), one of the farmers who had settled in the area.
- My first concern was to save my daughter, who I carried out of the house. I only had time to take some pillows and a few other properties. Everything else was destroyed.

That night the family had to sleep under a three. There was nothing left of their house.
Koy Koeurn considered whether the family should move. But he realized they had no alternative ways of making a living. Within one week they had started to rebuild their house.

Two generations in the Ta Khor village

Two generations in the Ta Khor village.

There vere similar stories to be heard in neighboring villages. Different military officers had confiscated huge areas of land for their own benefit.

After Koy Koeurn and his neighbors had rebuilt their hoses, soldiers would continue showing up to threaten them to move. However, the farmers refused and finally a local governor negotiated a solution in which they were each given a small piece of land.

A court later ordered the arsonists to pay each family USD 300. This amount has never been paid.

Koy Koeurn now hopes he will be able to stay in the area. Yet he is not completely confident.

- I have no choice but to struggle to find a future for my 4 daughters. My biggest hope is to be able to send them to school, hetold me.

Land grabbing is a major problem in Cambodia. Below you will find a documentary video in three parts explaining the problem:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Additional reading:

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