Nineteen Oddar Meanchey Villagers in Prison as Land Dispute Escalates

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A house burning in Oddar Meanchey’s Trapaing Prasat on December 10, and an armed officer threatening residents on September 12, in a photo supplied by a resident to Licadho and a video posted to social media, respectively.
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Authorities have arrested a total of 19 people and burned down homes as a land dispute near an Oddar Meanchey rubber plantation escalates, according to residents and a human rights group.

Provincial military police raided Trapaing Prasat commune on December 10, a resident who asked not to be named for fear of safety told VOD, setting people’s houses on fire and arresting eight people. The episode came after villagers said authorities had threatened to destroy their homes last week if they did not leave.

Police also used violence, seriously injuring at least one person, the villager said.

“We don’t know about the health condition of a man named Da that suffered a serious beating, or how his health is now,” the villager said.

“He was beaten up with a metal stick and was bleeding all over his body and lost consciousness. He was put in a car but we don’t know whether they sent him to hospital or not.”

The dispute dates back to 2012, according to Licadho, when Sok Samnang Development was granted more than 1,800 hectares of land in the area but only built a plantation on part of it. Families began moving to the former forest to farm and work on rubber plantations and came under pressure starting in 2021, when authorities claimed they were too close to the company’s land.

Eleven others had been previously arrested in September and November and remain imprisoned, according to human rights group Licadho. Am Sam Ath, the group’s operations manager, told VOD that previous arrests had also been violent.

Provincial military police and the provincial court could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Villager Oun Thy told VOD last week that multiple authorities, including military police and local police, had ordered families to leave the disputed land and threatened their homes would be destroyed if they did not agree.

She said her family and other people went to work on the disputed land starting in 2012 to grow cassava, banana, mangoes and jackfruits. But in 2021, Oddar Meanchey provincial authorities banned people from farming.

Over the past year-plus of the dispute with the company, there have been multiple clashes with authorities, she said.

Heang Thiv, another villager, said villagers are worried about the continuing arrests and the loss of houses and farmland. She added that some people are hiding for fear of safety.

Although about 500 families have previously worked on the disputed land, she said, many are now leaving, with only about 70 families remaining and looking for a solution.

“They threaten people that if [they] don’t leave, they will come and arrest and burn the houses,” she said. The families involved in the dispute are poor and hold about 2 to 5 hectares of land each.

Video of some clashes have been shared on social media, including one on September 12, when armed forces protecting the rubber plantation yelled at people living on disputed land in Ou Krouch village and threatened people on camera.

Licadho’s Sam Ath said authorities should solve the dispute peacefully and not use violence or arrests against people. Cambodian authorities continue to violate human rights, he said.

“I think that if we try to resolve it peacefully as much as possible, it is better than using coercive force, causing violence and imprisonment that leads to more criticism of human rights abuses, and this land dispute cannot be solved. On the contrary, it makes people face more difficulties,” he said.

Oddar Meanchey provincial governor Pen Kosal said he knew about the dispute between people and the Sok Samnang rubber plantation, but didn’t know that authorities had threatened to arrest people and dismantle their houses.

Kosal acknowledged the company had used military-police forces and the courts to take action against people, and said the company had never brought the land dispute to the provincial administration for help in reaching a settlement. He and the deputy provincial governor, along with Trapaing Prasat district authorities, plan to visit the community and investigate the case, he said.

VOD could not reach Khut Chenda, whom villagers claimed to be Sok Samnang’s representative.

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