Svay Rieng residents say villagers were forced to promise not to demonstrate
FOUR villagers accused of being “ringleaders” in a heated land dispute in Svay Rieng province say authorities have forced them to sign documents pledging not to continue protests, residents said Tuesday.
Chan Hoeung was one of four villagers from Romeas Hek district who faced eight hours of questioning from provincial court officials Tuesday as part of a dispute with a private company. He said he and three others were peppered with questions while officials took their photographs.
“The provincial court forced us to sign an agreement with them to stop protesting about this land dispute,” he said.
“If we protest again, they will arrest us because they have our photos already.”
One villager still detained
The questioned men were accompanied by roughly 150 supporters, villagers and rights groups said.
They represented approximately 400 families in five communes in Romeas Hek who say they are in danger of being forced from their homes because of a land concession awarded to the Peam Chaing Rubber Company.
The villagers had sought to convince the court to release Yea Yeoung, who was arrested earlier this month after police accused him of destroying property and “briefly kidnapping” a company representative.
But Chheang Am, the provincial governor, said authorities would not release the man, though he added that he considered any legal issues concerning the four villagers questioned Tuesday to be resolved. The court had summoned 11 other villagers as part of the dispute.
“We did not arrest the villagers for this land dispute. But we cannot release the man who was arrested because he threatened to kill a company representative,” Chheang Am said.
Keo Sothea, a provincial prosecutor assigned to the case, declined to comment.
The villagers said they were met with Military Police officers armed with stun batons and rifles when they showed up at court Tuesday.
Rights groups decried Tuesday’s outcome, contending that local authorities were trying to threaten the villagers by suggesting their protests are illegal.
“Authorities did not accuse just the villagers. They also accused NGOs too,” said Ouch Leng, a land programme officer for the rights group Adhoc.
“They said villagers have no right to protest and NGOs persuaded the villagers to protest.”
Disputed land concession
The dispute centres on roughly 800 hectares of land claimed by the villagers and the Peam Chaing Rubber Company.
In 2007 the government awarded the company a 3,960-hectare concession that included the villagers’ land.
Local officials say the company has planned to compensate the villagers in the future with some 700 hectares of land. Both commune and district officials have sided with the company, accusing the villagers of living on the land “under anarchic conditions”.
But Adhoc’s Ouch Leng said the villagers were being treated unfairly.
“Authorities do not have a clear understanding about democracy and economic land concessions,” he said. “They only think that the people that are awarded the concessions are the owners. They do not think about how it will affect villagers.”