A group of residents in Oddar Meanchey’s Samraong city say they fear arrest and losing their land after the provincial court summoned 11 of them for questioning early next month over a land dispute.
The summonses come as four villagers were arrested on the land on Tuesday, only to be released that evening after a protest by what villagers said was hundreds of supporters. The land in question is said to have formerly been part of Angkor Sugar, a notorious site of alleged human rights violations that has led to a class-action lawsuit in Thailand.
May Pek, a resident of Konkriel commune, said 1,149 hectares of land were claimed by 293 families in five villages in both Konkriel and Samraong commune.
Pek said the residents had used the land for decades until 2007, when a sugarcane company received a government license for the land and evicted residents without compensation. But the company closed down in 2015, and people moved back on the land, he said.
Since the beginning of this year, a new company, San Heang, was claiming the land, he said.
He and 10 other residents had been summoned to appear at the court on September 1 and 2 over accusations that they falsified documents and encroached on the company’s land, Pek said. They would appear as they had not committed any wrongdoing, he said.
“My people, they support me. When I go in for questioning, they will come too because they are afraid,” Pek said. “I’m worried. It’s not that I’m not worried, but at this stage, if they want to arrest us, we don’t know what to do. But we also have to struggle — if we can’t struggle [and] just bear with it…”
Another summoned resident, Rath Sopheap, said it was not the first incident with San Heang. On Tuesday, a provincial forestry administration official and about 10 armed officers, including some from the company, arrested four farmers building huts in their rice fields, Sopheap said.
Sopheap said there were no arrest warrants, and the four farmers were held at the provincial forestry administration office as hundreds of villagers gathered outside in protest. They were released around 8 p.m.
Authorities tried to stop the people from protesting and taking photos, and confiscated three phones, she said.
“They kicked once, and put their feet while a person was on the ground, shoved into the ground and tied their hands behind their back,” she said. “They acted like this. It was so extreme against the people.”
Oddar Meanchey provincial forestry administration director Im Sao Varith said he had ordered the four arrests because the farmers had illegally encroached on state land, but denied that authorities had used guns to intimidate residents.
He declined to say whether the administration had brought a lawsuit against the 11 people summoned to court.
“We arrested them because they went to encroach on state land, invading state private land with a solid land title,” Sao Varith said.
Oddar Meanchey provincial governor Pen Kosal said he had already established a committee to investigate the dispute between San Heang and villagers. He had some results, and authorities planned to meet and make a decision soon, Kosal said.
“I organized a committee to check what the people have to rely on, and what the company has to rely on. The important thing is what evidence or proof they have so we can solve it,” he said.
San Heang could not be reached for comment. An Agriculture Ministry document dated July 13 gives San Heang a permit to clear forests and harvest byproducts on 1,500 hectares. According to OpenCorporates, the company was registered last year and has since changed its name to San Heang (Kampuchea) Aharon Niharon.
Adhoc official Srey Naren said the land in question formerly belonged to Angkor Sugar. Angkor Sugar was one of three sugar plantations in Cambodia under Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol, which is facing a class-action lawsuit from Cambodian farmers. Farmers’ homes were burned and razed, allegedly with the involvement of military forces hired by the plantation. Mitr Phol has said that it was not a participant.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)