Indigenous Community Representative Arrested Over Land Dispute

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Heng Saphen, a representative of the Kbet Changho Khnar community of indigenous Kuy people in Kampong Thom province. Police arrested Phen on Tuesday, June 14, 2022, and charged her under the Land Law. (Supplied)
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The Kampong Thom Provincial Court has put an indigenous Kuy community representative in pretrial detention for violence against a property owner following a complaint from a local company.

Heng Saphen, second deputy of the local Kuy community in Sandan district, was arrested on Tuesday and charged under the Land Law with committing violence against a property owner for alleged illegal encroachment on the company’s land, said provincial court spokesman Say Veasna.

The community has long been in dispute with Sambath Platinum, which received nearly 2,500 hectares in 2011 for a rubber plantation in Boeng Per Wildlife Sanctuary.

Hean Hiek, first deputy of the Kbet Changho Khnar community, rejected the accusations against Saphen.

“She has done nothing wrong. She did not do anything affecting the company’s benefit, and her arrest violated the rights of indigenous people because there was no clear reason,” Hiek said, adding that they had seen no arrest warrant.

Hiek said that the company had begun clearing the community’s farmland in 2011. In 2014, the provincial administration told the company to cut off 130 hectares of its concession for the community and stay 100 meters away from a canal they used. But, according to Hiek, the company had not complied. The community alleges the company has cleared about 700 of 1,000 hectares of the community’s land.

A letter issued by the Kampong Thom land management department in August last year ordered Sambath Platinum to stop planting boundary poles, clearing crops, and removing the community’s markers. It also ordered the company to compensate the community for crop damage.

Another community member, Um Bunthorn, alleged that on May 18, eight armed officers had used violence against residents and confiscated their tractors. Now, the company had unfairly filed a court complaint against them, he argued.

“Our indigenous people would like to appeal to the court and national authorities to intervene for the release of Heng Phen,” Bunthorn said.

Chheng Phann, a company representative and the case’s plaintiff, could not be reached on Thursday.

Ngoan commune chief Seth Phouy said the dispute was long-standing, but the matter was resolved.

“Previously, the people feared using land within the map of the company, forests that they had used for many years. [But] the company has never done anything to affect the people,” Phouy said.

Ngoan’s commune police chief, who only gave his name as Sopheak, said he had also not received a court order for the arrest, and instructions had come down from higher levels.

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