The Imam who leads a congregation of more than 2,000 Sunni Muslims in Tboung Khmum province’s Rokapor Pram village in Tboung Khmum district has openly declared that some villagers are actively involved in land grabbing activities.
Imam Mohd Soleh, 62, said that generally there is no conflict in the village because all the Muslims there are from the same Sunni sect of Islam.
“We cultivate rubber, cassava and cashew and supplement it with rice cultivation,” he said. “We will not claim we are poor and neither are we rich but we have enough means to live a decent live.”
“However, there are some people in our village who have ventured out to other provinces to grab forest land,” he added.
Imam Soleh said that though land grabbing is an illegal activity, he could not stop the villagers who embarked on this illegal scheme to get rick quickly. They grabbed the land and then ventured into real estate business to sell forest land to other people.
“The land grabbing is in faraway provinces such as Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri and Kampong Thom,” he said. “In Kampong Thom, a number of Muslim villagers had settled there and got involved with agricultural activities as paid farmers while some who had grabbed land and managed to get some form of ownership, did their own farming.”
The villagers, the Imam said, did not have much choice as employment opportunities in the village and the province as a whole was limited.
“Given this problem, some had become land traders and either got rich quickly or lost money because of dubious land transaction deals,” he noted. “They then either returned to the village to their families and small holdings or moved to another village or province to earn a living.”
“Most families here want their children to have an education and vocational skills. My own son is in Phnom Penh studying computer skills and may return here to teach other children. Otherwise, the schools here, both government ones and madrasah [Muslim religious schools] teach basic education,” Imam Soleh said, adding that because of limited choices, many young people went to the restive Southern Thailand provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani to undertake religious studies.
He said that in these provinces, the pondok [Thai Muslim religious school] system of education enables the students to get free education and free lodging.
Imam Soleh stressed that the students’ options are limited and Thailand, no matter how dangerous the situation there, was a way out for the youth in Tboung Khmum to get religious education and for them to return and disseminate what they learned to others who don’t have the opportunity to go to Thailand.
He pointed out that just because the villagers from his congregation undertake land grabbing, they should not be labelled as anarchists as this was a question of survival and the need for a better living standard.