The land deal was supposed to help Cambodia’s poor

How did it end up pitting Muslims against indigenous minorities?

By Abby Seiff in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri

Drive deep enough into Mondulkiri’s Pech Chreada district, and the rubber plantations that dot the roads fall away. Here, there is only mile after mile of lush, dark woodland: An ideal place to bury one’s dead and pay respects to the spirits that reside inside this sacred Bunong forest. And, too, an ideal place to send hundreds of impoverished – but willing and able – homesteaders to carve out a better life.

Some 300 families, primarily Muslims from Kampong Cham province, have moved to Bousra commune’s Tuol Svay village in recent years. Established by the government in 2009, the village is part of a 2,400-hectare Social Land Concession aimed at reducing poverty and improving lives. Rich in timber and natural resources, the forest has been a lifeline for the new residents. But for neighboring indigenous Bunong communities who have utilized the land for spiritual practices for decades, the forest has become the scene of an unlikely religious battle.

“The Muslims pulled down the trees and moved into the forest,” said Khan Channy, 27, a Bunong activist who lives close to the settlement.

“Now the Muslims have a very modern village. There are big houses; there are cars under the houses. When the Bunong community in Bousra goes there to stop them, they don’t cut any more, but as soon as they leave, they cut again.”

Khan Channy on her ‘meel’, or rotational crop land

The nearby forest has changed considerably in Channy’s lifetime. In recent years, the snarl of native trees has been hacked down, sold at a tidy profit, and replaced with hundreds of square kilometers of rubber plantations. While Tuol Svay village represents a minute fraction of the land appropriated and passed on by the government, it is a land deal that some find particularly vexing.

Why did the government give this land to the Muslim people?” asked Channy. “Some Bunong people don’t have land either, and we’ve lived here for a long time – why not give land to them?”

Repeatedly, the Bunong community has sought government intervention. The results have been varying, leaving activists to defend the land by physically stopping the homesteaders and confiscating their chainsaws.

For those trying to stake out a claim on their newly titled land, the confrontation has been a headache.

Heng Pok, 32, moved from Kampong Cham less than a year ago with her soldier husband. For the most part, said Pok, the concession is a vast improvement on her overcrowded Kampong Cham home.

“But yes, we have a problem with the Bunong. We cut down the trees and then the Bunong take us to the police and say ‘this is our land’. The police have discussed it with the Bunong people, they come back with them and say: ‘this is your land, this is theirs,’” but the issue continues, said Pok.

“When the Muslims cut down this spirit forest, the souls are angry.”

For the most part, life in Tuol Svay is difficult but rewarding. There is ample land for each family, and the abundance of timber ensures every resident has a spacious home. In the rainy season, roads are nearly impassable, but a store and a planned school and mosque have lessened the need to reach neighboring villages.

Pok runs the only store in the village, a lucrative business as the nearest market takes hours to reach. Behind her home, cassava sprouts in heady bunches on a badly denuded hill.

For her and the other residents here, the forest simply meets a need.

“I never heard it was special land,” she said.

That lack of awareness has proven a crucial problem, rights monitors and even government officials admit.

The social land concession, “affected Bunong people, affected their farmland and spirit forests,” said Pech Chreada district governor Nuon Saron.

After the issue was raised at a public forum last year, authorities agreed to put in demarcation borders to protect the remaining forest. Progress has been slow.

“We started to put in border posts in 2014 and have not finished,” said Saron, explaining that the rainy season had stalled the initiative.

“I’m not sure whether it will be finished this year or not.”

Shifting borders

In and around the village, however, there is little sign the demarcation is adhered to or even known.

A Bunong woman working in a nearby field grew agitated when reporters appeared.

“I have a problem,” she shouted. “The Muslims took my land where my mother and father were buried… My parents, grandparents and sister died and were buried there – in that sacred forest.”

Sok Ratha, a provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc chided the government for failing to research the area before awarding the land.

“The provincial authorities should have carried out a clear study before providing land to anyone,” said Ratha, who has already seen two official complaints filed by the community.

Those in the village, however, have clearly benefitted from the lack of due diligence.

Sitting in front of a neat wooden guest home abutting an even larger house, 19-year-old Ya marveled over her mother-in-law’s property.

“I’m just visiting but I want to live here,” said Ya, bouncing her baby daughter. “It’s very hard to find land in Kampong Cham. Poor people have to work for others, they can’t have their own land.”

Say Kim Sinat and her siblings live hundreds of miles away from their parents, who moved to the forest concession in the hopes of securing a better future.

Down the road, Say Kim Sinat, 16, and her two younger siblings were spending a few weeks with their parents before returning to Kampong Cham, where they attend school.

“My parents wanted to move here because they can have land and make a farm,” said Kim Sinat. In less than a year, the family has managed to build an expansive home and clear most of their 10 allotted hectares.

Behind the farmland, forest stretches deep into the distance and Channy stares at it dejectedly.

“That place is a sacred forest – just one or two kilometers in, where the Muslims have started cutting the trees,” she said.

“When the Muslims cut down this spirit forest, the souls are angry. They can make them have an accident or make them sick. But they’re also angry at the Bunong people because it seems that we don’t care about the spirit forest and don’t protect them.”

This article was written by Abby Seiff in Sen Monorom with additional reporting by Roeurn Heng and Chhorn Chansy. Originally published at

Related report: Land grabs drive Cambodian ethnic minorities to Christianity

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