Two men will be questioned by the Preah Vihear Provincial Court today over allegations they burned down the office of rubber company Ample Focus over a heated land dispute.
The two are among eight villagers sued by the company for destroying their property in Sangkum Thmei district in September last year.
Ke Lout and Huon Sok said they weren’t guilty of the arson attack, which occurred as a protest involving 300 villagers came to a head.
“The company sued us for damaging its office. They thought we were the ones who set fire to it,” Lout said. “I am not the one who burned it, but others were. I was not at the scene at the time. We do not know what action the court will take against us.”
According to the accused, Ample Focus cleared land and blocked villagers from farming their plots, sparking a protest from the 300 villagers.
The villagers say they appealed to authorities for a solution, to no avail.
Lout also claimed Ample Focus had cleared parts of a neighbour’s cashew plantation last year and promised to compensate them to the tune of $500, only for the owner to receive just $62.50.
Kaing Saroeung, a company representative, could not be reached for comment.
Ros Heng, Sangkum Thmei district governor, played down the scale of the land dispute, saying authorities had distributed pockets of land to affected villagers since Ample Company was granted 8,000 hectares in a 2012 economic land concession (ELC).
“It does not affect many villagers. We already solved it. Some people burned and damaged the company’s property, so they were sued,” he said.
He said he believed the arson was instigated by only a few men, and didn’t reflect the wishes of the entire village.
Last night, some 80 fellow villagers travelled 100 kilometres and camped out overnight near the provincial court to support the accused, according to Lor Chann, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.
Chann called for the authorities to expedite the land dispute issues in Preah Vihear to avoid land-related unrest.
In a separate land dispute in the province, community members in Chey Sen district last week claim they stopped a bulldozer from sugar company Rui Feng from clearing a small patch of their community forest – property which has been recognised by the government.
“The company cleared to build a road in our community forest, not on its land,” said Mean Loeun, a community leader.