About 600 Kampong Speu residents resisting authorities’ clearing of community forests protested outside the provincial police headquarters on Tuesday after their representatives were summoned for questioning over alleged insult and property damage.
The dispute stems from authorities giving away 262 hectares of community forests to several members of the military, and moving in with heavy machinery in October to raze the land, according to families. The Udom Sre Kpos forestry area, also known as the Prey Metta Thommacheat community, originally covered more than 2,800 hectares, but the government gradually privatized most of it for companies and soldiers over 20 years, they said.
Soeng Sok, one of the family representatives summoned by police, said authorities were trying to scare them from protesting.
“People have been trying to protect the Udom Sre Kpos community forest for 10 to 20 years, and suddenly there are machines coming in without notice to clear it — no information from any side,” Sok said. “So our people, who are trying to protect it, must chase them out first. And when we chased them out, suddenly there was a summons from the police headquarters that we were destroying other people’s property and committing public insult.”
The people did not agree, he said. “Those who try to protect, those who try to preserve, become accused while the destroyer has no guilt.”
Khorn Khern, who joined the protest on Tuesday, said around 600 residents of two districts — Oral and Thpong — gathered outside the provincial police headquarters in support of seven summoned representatives. She named four of the representatives, aside from Sok, as Khorn Sarith, Soeng Sokhom, Lor Soly and Chhorn Thea.
“Our representatives did not do anything wrong and did not insult anyone. People came to support them, because when we went to protest, we all went together in the hundreds,” Khern said. “How come only five or six people were summoned? We did not do anything wrong. We just went to protest to protect the natural forest for future generations and protect the wildlife there. So we think that what we are doing is not wrong.”
The community forest land had been divided up for 41 military families, she said.
Kampong Speu provincial police chief Sam Samoun said authorities had summoned the seven residents after receiving a complaint, but the questioning was postponed. He declined to identify the plaintiff.
“If you want to know what the charges are, ask the people, do not let me speak about that, because the police must stand on justice. Whenever someone files a complaint, we have to accept the complaint and find out how to build a case for the court, so police’s duty is just that,” Samoun said.
Nhel Pheap, Koh Kong and Kampong Speu community coordinating officer for the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, said the police summons was a threat, in line with similar measures that authorities have repeatedly brought against communities and activists.
“Doing this is unconstitutional. We know that our Constitution clearly states that every citizen has the right to protect their legitimate interests and the interests of all natural resources,” Pheap said.
In October, Kampong Speu provincial governor Vy Samnang told VOD that the land being cleared and given to military families was not in the community forest, and that protesters were an “opposition group” instigated by land speculators and civil society. Samnang at the time warned of legal action against the protesters and those who had incited them.
Elsewhere in the country, authorities are putting on a display of widespread crackdowns against individuals who have encroached on state forests around Tonle Sap lake after Prime Minister Hun Sen posted a searing audio message on Facebook on Sunday accusing officials of involvement in grabbing the flooded forest land.
Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer