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Embattled villagers fight on

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Ethnic Tampuon villagers, including representative Seoung Yarat (right), claim that their lives have been threatened by a company clearing land in Lumphat district, Ratanakkiri province. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Ethnic Tampuon villagers, including representative Seoung Yarat (right), claim that their lives have been threatened by a company clearing land in Lumphat district, Ratanakkiri province. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

First, agricultural company DM group displaced them, now a recently arrived commercial farmer has threatened their lives and chased them off their new land, said representatives of 12 families engaged in a long-standing land dispute in Ratanakkiri province.

On Wednesday, the 12 Tampuon ethnic minority families filed a complaint to the provincial court against Kuchu Chanbonak, a relative of the commercial farm’s owner, accusing him and other employees of destroying their crops and using guns to threaten them, said villager representative Seoung Yarat.

The 50-year-old Yarat had good reason to fear such threats. He lost his right leg in 2009 to the bullet of a security officer while protesting against DM Group’s encroachment.  

“Now newcomers threaten to shoot me,” he said. Chanbonak could not be reached for comment.

The new commercial farmers first threatened the villagers in December, when relatives Kuchu Chanbonak and Kuchu Chankaisna, along with other staff, came with guns to cut down the villagers’ trees and told them they had to vacate their lands, Yarat said.

On Wednesday, the 12 families fled their homes after the commercial farm’s people threatened their lives for the second time, he said.

“We 12 families ran away and scattered. Some went to their relatives and nobody remains, because we will be shot and killed if we still stay in our homes,” Yarat said. “This threatening is to prevent us from daring to protest and to force us to give our land to them.”

The families’ land – one hectare in Lumphat district’s Kaleng commune – was given to them by commune authorities in 2008 after DM Group pushed them off their old land. Authorities have been largely unresponsive to the complaints of the 136 Tampuon families who since 2005 have continued to dispute DM Group’s encroachment on 260 hectares of their land.

“It is so unjust for villagers that a company invaded their lands and threatened their lives, and now newcomers are threatening them again,” said Pen Bonnar, a senior investigator for human rights group Adhoc.

Bonnar is one of three human rights workers, along with a reporter, to have faced questioning by the Ratanakkiri provincial court in relation to charges of inciting villagers against authorities during their long-running dispute with DM Group.

Bonnar said one of the new encroachers, Chanbonak, has been identified as a colonel from the Ministry of Defence, so at the recommendation of Ministry officials, villagers today will file a complaint to the ministry.

Yarat said he planned to travel today to Phnom Penh to draw attention to the villagers’ plight. “Prime Minister Hun Sen will be aware if they come to kill me in Phnom Penh,” he said.

Ratanakkiri deputy prosecutor Ros Sarom said he had not yet received the villagers’ complaint, but added that it might have arrived at the administrative office.

Kaleng commune chief Sut Sam said that after investigating the farming business’s destruction of the villagers’ crops and threats to their lives, even he had received threats.

To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com

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