The mood outside the Kampong Thom Provincial Court had grown tense on the afternoon of July 26. Some 12 residents of Ngon village, an Indigenous Kuy community in Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district, waited for the judge’s verdict.
The group had spent roughly $200 travelling the 75 kilometres (47 miles) to the provincial capital, a substantial sum for the subsistence farmers, to show their support to Chan Lay Phiek, daughter of the community’s second deputy chief, Heng Saphen.
Lay Phiek had been summoned by the court as part of a long-running land dispute between the Kuy community and Sambath Platinum, a Cambodian rubber company that was given a 2,496-hectare (6,168-acre) land concession within Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary in December 2011.
Just over a month prior, on June 14, Saphen herself had been arrested and charged with violently confronting representatives of Sambath Platinum, whom the Kuy community accused of encroaching on Indigenous land.
An hour after the court hearing was scheduled to begin, officials finally came out to say that the hearing had been cancelled. No new date was given and court officials refused to answer the community’s questions.
“This is a tactic of the court,” said a visibly angry Saphen. “They knew we were coming, so they wasted our time and our money. We had wanted to expedite the hearing, but the court just wants to consume our time and energy.”
With no resolution, Saphen and the rest of her community embarked on the hour-and-a-half journey back down the dusty roads that lead to Ngon village, explaining how the conflict arose some 10 years ago.
“We’ve lived on the land for generations. Traditionally our ancestors made a living collecting resin. This tradition was passed down, we lived off our own labor, we could get everything we needed from the forest,” she says. “There were no challenges, we lived comfortably in solidarity, we shared resources among our community. There was no need for people to buy or sell things — until 2011, when a company bought a chunk of our land.”
Rise of the rubber barons
Over the course of 2010 and 2011, the Cambodian government issued 14 economic land concessions across Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, covering a total 68,994 hectares (170,488 acres) — almost the size of Singapore.
These concessions represented roughly 27 per cent of the 248,556-hectare (614,195-acre) sanctuary, which was largely rich, evergreen forest before 2009. UN human rights observers have noted that many of Cambodia’s rubber concessions were more focused on timber extraction than on agricultural investment.
As of December 2021, 946,926 hectares (2.34 million acres) spread across 157 land concessions had been allocated for rubber plantations, although of that, 153,141 hectares (378,420 acres) appear to be mixed plantations harbouring other crops besides purely rubber.
There’s just no policy for development that helps Indigenous people in Cambodia. For Heng Saphen and her daughter being arrested, put under surveillance, this is normal in Cambodia—she’s luckier than other Indigenous people, she only faced standard tactics and things have stayed peaceful.
Lorang Yun, head, Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reported in August 2022 that only 402,760 hectares (995,242 acres) of Cambodia’s 1.16 million hectares (2.87 million acres) of agricultural concessions were actually being cultivated. A further 507,510 hectares (1.25 million acres) were still being cleared, while an undisclosed amount of land was cut from concessions and given to communities.
This wasn’t the case for Saphen and the community in Ngon village, who found themselves pitted against one of Cambodia’s powerful rubber barons. Sambath Platinum is headed up by Norng Veasna, who besides being one of Kampong Thom province’s national assembly representatives, has ties to an array of powerful business tycoons.
Chief among them is Mak Kim Hong, whose notoriety stems from a number of rubber businesses that have been linked to land disputes, timber grabs and violent forced evictions. Hong is a well-connected tycoon, having run the state-owned Chup Rubber Plantation throughout the 1990s and 2000s before purchasing it in 2009 with his own private company, Sopheak Nika Investment Group — another high-powered company co-directed by Senator Ly Yong Phat and Mok Poponnrith, mother-in-law of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest child, Hun Manet.
Mak Kim Hong Group is just one of the six companies Veasna co-directs with Hong and Hong’s son, Hong Nikoline. Veasna’s relationship with the Hong family extends beyond business: he’s married to Hong Nikol, believed to be Hong’s daughter.
When contacted to discuss the land dispute between his company and the Ngon village community, a man answered the phone saying he was not Veasna, but was his cousin. The “cousin” declined to give a name or answer questions as to why his phone number matched contact details for Veasna listed on the websites of both the National Assembly and Ministry of Commerce for Veasna, or why the profile picture in the Telegram account linked to the number was a photo of Veasna.
A decade of dispute
Sambath Platinum did not respond to emailed inquiries from Mongabay. But while the company and its well-connected director declined to speak, the community living in its shadow were prepared to provide a detailed history of their interaction with Veasna’s company.
Hien Heak, first deputy of the Kuy community in Ngon village, said that with Sambath Platinum’s investments came challenges for the community. No longer were they allowed to collect herbs and vegetables from the forest; the land they had relied on was ebbing away.
Over the course of January and February 2012, representatives from the Ministry of Environment met with local officials in Sandan district to discuss the fate of the 72 families who would be affected by Sambath Platinum’s concession.
“By granting the [concession], the [Ministry of Environment] breached Article 23 [of the Land Law] by depriving the villagers of their immovable property,” wrote the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) in a 2014 report, also noting that subdecree 146 on economic land concessions forbids granting concessions on land that others have any claim to.
Failing to obtain consent from the Indigenous Kuy community, the AIPP wrote, violated both Cambodia’s own laws — both the Land Law and the 2009 subdecree on Procedures of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities — along with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which Cambodia’s government voted in favour of in 2007.
“We tried to resolve it with the company at first,” Heak said. “It wasn’t until 2014 that we began formally submitting complaints. First, we filed at the commune level, then the district level, and then the provincial level, but we received nothing in response. The government doesn’t try to solve problems for Indigenous people.”
Desperate, Heak said, the community began reaching out to NGOs, seeking support. This prompted Kampong Thom provincial authorities to finally visit the community and demarcate their land. But the demarcation process saw only the Kuy community’s farmland officially registered — not the forest where they gathered mushrooms, herbs and plant roots for traditional medicines.
“We demanded our right to access the forest, to collect these [non-timber forest products] as we have for generations,” Heak said. “We were rejected.”
Sambath Platinum responded by digging a canal to mark it concession boundaries, but Heak and Saphen say this cut through their ancestral land. And so the community requested a 130-hectare (321-acre) corridor of land spanning both sides of the canal so they could access the forest.
But then Sambath Platinum cleared the forest, rendering this request moot.
The fight for land tenure
“The evergreen forest that we’d relied on was cleared,” Saphen said. “It left us no choice but to accept the demarcation of our farmlands. But we submitted an application for a communal land title in 2015.”
This process, which is designed to ensure communities, often Indigenous ones, are able to collectively own their ancestral land, is convoluted and time-consuming. But this didn’t deter Saphen and her neighbours. It took a full year before the Ministry of Rural Development recognised them as an Indigenous community. Then another year for the Ministry of Interior to do the same.
By the end of 2017, on behalf of her community, Saphen had filed official land measurements to the local land management officials who, along with local environment and agriculture authorities, signed off on the measurements. This was far from the end of the process, but it was the beginning of new problems, Saphen said.
“Sambath Platinum had already dug the canal demarcating their land in 2014, but then they encroached further onto our land by erecting border posts,” she said. The community estimate they lost 490 hectares (1,211 acres) when the posts went up on their side of the canal in 2018.
As word of the communal land title application spread, local officials from the commune and district level began applying pressure on Saphen, warning her to drop the application and settle for individual land titles for smaller plots of land.
“From 2018 to now, we’ve received threats of imprisonment, we’ve been taunted with handcuffs, and when we told local officials, they did nothing,” she said. “Some even threatened us, saying we needed to take the deal.”
One district official, Saphen said, told them that the company didn’t owe them any compensation and that they should be evicted, while another commune official simply replied “I don’t care” when the community brought their problem to him.
“By the way they talk and by their actions, it makes us feel that these officials had been paid off by Sambath Platinum,” she said. “That’s why they do nothing to solve our problems. Many local officials have gone to work for the company since they bought the land here.”
The pressure to take individual land titles grew as the community’s application dragged on. Historically, across Cambodia, companies and corrupt officials have pushed Indigenous communities to take individual land titles as it’s easier to later buy these up or force the owners from the land compared to land that’s held under a communal title.
“Together, we are a bunch of chopsticks, but it is very easy to break chopsticks one at a time,” Saphen said.
Even the chief of Saphen’s community ultimately aligned himself with the company. When he took a job with Sambath Platinum, it left Saphen as the natural successor, but with that came a slew of accusations.
“Officials from the commune and district levels, officers at the provincial department of forestry and the provincial department of environment were all saying that I was the mastermind of the community, that I was inciting them to rebel,” she said, adding that these officials came to her house repeatedly.
“They aimed to break our community,” said Heak, Saphen’s deputy. “They said they would stop us getting the community land title, they would stop us getting loans from microfinance institutions, they were trying to find any way they could to silence our voice.”
‘What is my crime?’
Things escalated on May 18, 2022, when local police confiscated Saphen’s tractor, which her daughter, Chan Lay Phiek, had been using to plow what the community insisted was still their land.
“My arrest came with no warrant, no warning,” Saphen said. “They came to take me on June 14. The police read a complaint they said was from Sambath Platinum, claiming I’d been violent toward the company. I am innocent, I only farmed my land — no-one else’s.”
Officers on either side of her grabbed her by her arms and forced her into a car, she said. She remembered telling Heak to continue her work if anything were to happen to her, but didn’t elaborate on what she feared that might be.
Later that day, photos the police had taken of Saphen appeared online, saying they had arrested a suspect.
“I remember thinking, suspected of what? What is my crime?” Saphen said.
She was taken straight to court where prosecutors dismissed maps, official documentation and supporting evidence that Saphen had accrued over years of wading through the communal land titling application, despite these documents being recognised by various governmental institutions. Afterward, they took her to the police station, before hauling her back to court around 2:30 p.m. that same day.
It took only two hours for the judge to sentence Saphen to three months in prison.
By 5 p.m., Saphen was being processed at the Kampong Thom Provincial Prison, but tested positive for Covid-19. She was separated from the other inmates, held in a room with no toilet and given no food for fear of contamination. She was moved to a room with a toilet the following day after protests from the community.
Shortly after testing negative for Covid-19, on June 30, Saphen was released on bail at the behest of a lawyer who works with Indigenous communities, although she remains under surveillance and at risk of being arrested again.
Kampong Thom Governor Ngoun Ratanak could not be reached for comment on the matter.
Progressive legislation, poor implementation
Lorang Yun, head of the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance (CIPA), said Indigenous communities trying to obtain land titles face daunting obstacles.
“Since 2005, fewer than 40 communities have acquired a communal land title, despite hundreds applying,” he said. “The government grants our lands to companies, even after we’ve been using that land for generations.”
He pointed to the 2001 Land Law, which recognises the rights of Indigenous communities to claim ownership of ancestral land, but said officials in the ministries of land management, agriculture, and environment often refuse to uphold that element of the law.
“We can go through the initial steps of applying for communal land titles with the Ministry of Rural Development quite easily, but when the land has been earmarked for companies by the Ministry of Land Management officials or for conservation by Ministry of Environment officials, we have a problem,” Yun said.
Indigenous people are a problem the courts don’t want to acknowledge, Yun said, in part due to the rampant levels of corruption that shroud land ownership and acquisition in Cambodia. The problem is equally ignored by conservationists, who Yun said are able to establish protected areas with minimal consultation of communities, even as communal land titling processes are ongoing.
“Cambodia’s legal framework on [Indigenous peoples’] right to land is also the most progressive among Mekong countries, with the country’s Land Law [of] 2001, Environment Law [of] 2002, and Protected Area Law [of] 2008,” said Harafik Harafik, the Asia program manager at the International Land Coalition (ILC), which has coordinated with CIPA in Saphen’s case.
“All these Acts recognise [Indigenous peoples’] ownership and resources,” he said. “Again, the issue here remains the weak policy implementation and bureaucratic and lengthy procedures that make [Indigenous peoples’] tenurial rights less secure.”
Even if a communal land title is secured, the tenure it offers is shaky at best, and “only guarantees a better chance of compensation for land lost rather than outright stopping the land from being reclaimed by the government or bought up by government-supported tycoons,” Harafik said.
Yun put it more bluntly.
“The hope is very little, we don’t really believe we will get our ancestral lands back — that’s based on so many experiences like Saphen’s — but if the community remains strong, maybe they’ll get something,” he said.
But acknowledgement of Saphen’s rights or those of her community seem a long way off, let alone compensation, as the company has doubled down in its dispute.
Shortly after Saphen was released, her daughter, Lay Phiek, received the same complaint letter her mother had received in June and was scheduled to appear in court on July 26. That hearing was rescheduled without a later date given.
She eventually got a new hearing on Sept. 28, but no resolution was found. The court didn’t jail Lay Phiek, but nor did it drop the charges. Instead, Saphen said, they live in suspended animation, waiting for the next complaint letter, the next warning from local authorities, or the next police car to show up at her house.
“There’s just no policy for development that helps Indigenous people in Cambodia,” Yun said. “For Heng Saphen and her daughter being arrested, put under surveillance, this is normal in Cambodia — she’s luckier than other Indigenous people, she only faced standard tactics and things have stayed peaceful.”
The communal land title application remains with the Ministry of Land Management, which Saphen said has yet to issue a hard land title for the community. Seng Lot, the ministry’s spokesperson, did not reply to requests for comment.
After the September 2022 court hearing, Saphen said, the community is at a loss as to where to turn next.
Years of following procedures and working with the law to secure her land now feel wasted, serving only to dissolve any remaining trust between the community and the authorities. But Saphen said she will keep moving — even if she doesn’t know in which direction to go.
“We will keep fighting until we get all of our land back,” she said. “Even if it means imprisonment.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.