The first of 10 Mondulkiri public officials implicated in illegal land grabbing in the province has been transferred from his position — a warning to others, according to a government spokesperson, but for local rights monitors a sign of continuing impunity over imprisonable crimes.
An inter-ministerial working group concluded an investigation into illegal encroachment of protected forests in Mondulkiri in late August, identifying 10 governmental officials allegedly involved in stealing state land.
In a letter dated August 30, Interior Minister Sar Kheng asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to reshuffle the responsibilities of provincial governor Svay Sam Eang and remove the nine other officials — one senator plus eight local-level officials — from their positions.
According to a September 15 subdecree obtained on Tuesday, Hun Sen in response transferred Koh Nhek district governor Sin Vannvuth to the Interior Ministry.
“This is an additional warning to those who are in positions [of power] and are illegally encroaching on state land,” said government spokesperson Phay Siphan.
Other officials who have been colluding to take state land will see the action as a warning to stop immediately, he said.
Vannvuth, the ousted district governor, could not be reached for comment.
Pen Bonnar, an official at rights group Adhoc, said merely transferring officials who encroached on protected forestry land was not enough.
The illegal clearing of the state forestry land is a criminal act, and officials are also committing corruption by colluding in land grabs, he said.
“If there is no corruption, all these crimes could not have happened,” Bonnar said. “A corruption offense is also a criminal act. The executive body, which knows which officials committed misdemeanor crimes, must send [them] to court,” Bonnar said.
The clearing of protected Mondulkiri forests was continuing unabated, he said, with people setting up markers on state land and claiming areas as their own.
Under the Land Law, the infringement of public property carries a jail sentence of one to five years, and local officials who wrongfully acquire public land in their jurisdictions can be imprisoned from two to five years.
Aside from provincial governor Sam Eang and Koh Nhek district governor Vannvuth, the Interior Ministry letter to Hun Sen also identified the following officials as complicit:
- Senator Noy Sron.
- Provincial military commander Than Bunthoeun.
- Provincial administration deputy chief Sok Sera.
- O’Raing district governor Siek Mony.
- 716 Road Construction Unit deputy commander Det Hean.
- Keo Seima district’s Sre Preah commune chief Poeub Pe.
- The same district’s Sre Khtum commune chief Buth Sam El.
- Sen Monorom city’s Sen Monorom commune chief Thvan Trel.
Mondulkiri’s largest wildlife sanctuaries include Srepok, Keo Seima and Phnom Prich, which cover around 900,000 hectares combined. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Keo Seima sanctuary has the highest number of recorded species of any protected area in the country.