Svay Rieng Land Protesters Fined Under Covid-19 Restrictions

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Residents, some wearing masks, stand with protest signs in a Svay Rieng rice field, in a photo posted to Yous Sophorn’s Facebook page on August 4, 2021.

Two land dispute representatives have been fined about $1,000 each for Facebook posts showing a crowd of protesters in a Svay Rieng rice field, a gathering deemed by authorities to be a violation of Covid-19 measures.

“They came to gather more than 200 people in two places,” said Svay Chrum district governor Hem Sarith.

Action would be taken against any gathering that did not have the permission of authorities, Sarith said. “We wear face masks, practice social distancing and avoid gatherings,” he said.

Since late last week, the government has ordered a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people across the country for two weeks in a bid to prevent the spread of the Delta variant.

But a series of Facebook posts by Yous Sophorn on Monday showed villagers and children gathered in fields holding up banners, many without masks. A caption said: “On August 2, authorities came to ask people to give thumbprints to take 900 riel per square meter, but they didn’t accept. Where’s the place that has such a land price?”

The land dispute dates back to 2008, when the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology, together with local authorities, decided to use the area to create a reservoir. Since then, residents — who say they have farmed the land since the end of the Khmer Rouge era in 1979 — have sought appropriate compensation so that they can buy new land for farming.

Sophorn was among the two representatives who received a 4 million riel fine on Wednesday.

She said local officials were refusing to solve the problem for residents, instead persecuting them for raising the issue. She did not thumbprint the document ordering her to pay the fine, and she would not stop resisting, Sophorn said.

“I would like to request the government, especially Samdech Hun Sen, to intervene with the subordinate officials to solve the problems for the people. Otherwise, it will be prolonged even more. And the authorities have always accused the people of anything. They have always thought of accusing us without finding any way to solve it for the people to survive,” she said.

En Soth, who was also fined, said authorities were only making people more angry. About 30 people gathered outside the commune hall as Sophorn, Soth and a third representative were summoned for questioning on Wednesday.

“Where is the suitable compensation?” she said. “They said they would not take the people’s land. … If it is development on the tears of people, please do not do so, I do not want it. I want development with a decent exchange. Do not use power to oppress the people. I totally disagree.”

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