Elderly Woman Loses Fight to Keep Land in Phnom Penh

A determined attempt by an elderly woman to hold onto a plot of land she says she has farmed since 1979 in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district proved futile on Thursday morning, when police and security guards demarcated the property for development by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cousin Dy Proem.

Huot Sarom, 68, has been locked in a dispute over the 5.67-hectare plot with 120 neighboring families in Kakab commune, who sold pieces of what they say was collective land to Ms. Proem and who are now backing her fight against Ms. Sarom.

Huot Sarom, 68, takes a break on Thursday between scuffles with security guards in her bid to hold onto 5.67 hectares of land in Phnom Penh's Pur Senchey district, which she says she has farmed since 1979. Ms Sarom has been feuding over the plot with 120 families who sold it to a cousin of the prime minister. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Huot Sarom, 68, takes a break on Thursday between scuffles with security guards in her bid to hold onto 5.67 hectares of land in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district, which she says she has farmed since 1979. Ms Sarom has been feuding over the plot with 120 families who sold it to a cousin of the prime minister. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

At 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, an excavator was unloaded from a flatbed truck and began pounding wooden demarcation posts into the ground as local officials measured off sections of land. Ms. Sarom and her son, Kong Kimly, a member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, began scuffling with security guards, as well as a number of angry villagers pushing for efforts to delineate the property to go ahead.

At one point, Mr. Kimly was punched in the eye, while villagers twice knocked Ms. Sarom to the ground. A security guard could also be heard saying of the 68-year-old farmer, “Let’s break her arms! Boss?”

A previous attempt by villagers and authorities to demarcate the land on September 10 was called off after Ms. Sarom fought them away with a sickle.

Ms. Sarom came unarmed Thursday, but kept up her fight.

“You had 2 to 3 hectares of land each, but you sold them off and now you come…to take other people’s land,” she yelled at the other villagers. “This is reasonable for dogs, not humans.”

Mr. Kimly also pleaded with the crowd.

“You could take this land if you cleared and plowed the land, but you never put a plow on this land,” he screamed. “It belongs to me, because I plowed and cleared this land.”

Ms. Sarom’s lawyer, Kao Ty, tried to stop the demarcation process by presenting a letter, dated September 17 and signed by Mr. Hun Sen’s Cabinet chief Ho Sithy, that orders three representatives of the families who sold the land—Em Chhorn, Chea Chor and Thoun Thou—not to conduct “any type of land transaction including sale, right of transfer, pawning, heritage, donation, and demarcation.”

The letter also asks Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim to intervene in the case.

In 2011, Ms. Proem was convicted of corruption and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for paying $30,000 to influence an investigation into the land dispute, but she never served any jail time.

“This case is connected with corruption,” Mr. Ty shouted at police and security guards Thursday.

But district Governor Hem Darith said Thursday the letter signed by Mr. Sithy was irrelevant, and ordered the work to go ahead.

“It will finish today,” Mr. Darith said of the demarcation.

“This letter is not an official letter that can void this government notice,” he said, referring to a directive from the Council of Ministers in March 2013 that awarded the contested land to the villagers, with just one hectare reserved for Ms. Sarom.

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