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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Fishing families abandon hope for justice

Fishing families abandon hope for justice

Sun Lap, wife of protest representative Chern Choeun, with the baby born to her in the park on June 10. The next day riot police demolished the Sam Rainsy grenade memorial stupa and sprayed the park with water cannon. The protesters fled to the safety of Wat Botum

AFTER six months of protesting outside the National Assembly, fishing families from

Kampong Thom Province have abandoned hope of getting help from the Government.

Seventy-seven families came to Phnom Penh on January 23 seeking Government intervention

in a dispute between themselves and the owner of a fishing lot infringing on their

waters. It was a futile effort, said a representative of the protesters, Chern Choeun.

He said trouble for the villagers began in July last year when the rights to Fishing

Lot Four on Tonle Sap Lake were sold by Kampong Thom's provincial fishing office

to a businessman, Cheng You.

You later sold half the Lot Four rights to a businesswoman, Va May. Her portion of

the fishing lot adjoined the waters claimed by the protesters representing 117 families

from Batal and Phsout villages - located on the southeastern corner of the lake.

The protesters said shortly after the sale, May's armed boats infringed on the 72

square kilometers of the lake they claimed.

When the villagers continued fishing, they were threatened. Shots were fired at their

boats and their nets and other equipment were confiscated, said Choeun.

Once May's boats had control of their waters, villagers said May sold the rights

to men they know only as Mr Sour and Mr Hok.

The villagers say it is now impossible to support their families and they have been

unable to get help from the Government.

"We are stopping the protest and going back home because it is useless trying

to get help from the Government - our 'parents'," said Choeun.

On June 12 the Third Deputy Governor of Kampong Thom, Kang Bunthan (Funcinpec), came

to the park where the protesters were camped to announce that no progress would be

made on their grievance till they returned to their villages.

At negotiations with the families while the press looked on, Bunthan said the protesters

could send a five-member delegation back to the province to discuss their grievances

with local authorities and the owner of the fishing lot.

It was agreed that if the results of those talks were satisfactory, then the remainder

of the protesters would return as well.

Hours later, Choeun was summoned to Bunthan's Phnom Penh residence. There, Bunthan

told Choeun the deal was off. Provincial authorities would not negotiate unless all

the protesters returned to the province immediately.

After the meeting, Choeun told the Post the protesters have given up. He and his

people will go back to the province and will not return to Phnom Penh even if the

negotiation between the protesters, provincial authorities and the new fishing lot

owners fail.

"If they really wanted to help us it would not have taken longer than one month.

But we've been here for six months already," said Choeun, shaking his head with


The Chairman of the Senate's Human Rights and Reception of Complaints Committee,

Kem Sokha, said there has been no progress on the dispute since his committee received

a written complaint from the protesters on April 26.

On May 19 Sokha's committee wrote to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

(MAFF) asking them to resolve this dispute. The committee gave MAFF one month to

respond, but when the Post spoke to Sokha on June 20, MAFF still had not replied.

Sokha told the Post that his committee will send a "reminder" letter to

MAFF and they will get one more month to resolve the case. If MAFF fails to find

a solution, the committee will then go to Kampong Thom to investigate for themselves.

Choeun said life in the park has been very difficult for the protesting families.

Although they did not have enough food: "We are used to not having enough to

eat and we can survive with salt and drinking water," he said.

The worst thing the protesters suffered was harassment from the authorities, who

continually tried to force them from the park, said Choeun.

In one attempt at intimidation, a grenade was left at the edge of the families' encampment

where it was found by a villager on the morning of May 28.

Just days before abandoning the protest, Choeun's wife, Sun Lap, gave birth at the

camp. One day later the Phnom Penh Municipality ordered the destruction of the memorial

stupa on the edge of the park honoring the victims of the 1997 grenade attack.

On the evening of June 11, baton-wielding police backed by water cannons descended

on the stupa's supporters, turning the park into a riot zone. The fishing families

and a newly arrived group of poor farmers from Prey Veng Province feared for their

safety and fled the melee to the grounds of Wat Botum.

The following morning the Post spoke with Lap, who had spent the night sleeping outside

on a slab of concrete with her family. She was not producing milk and had to give

her baby to another village woman to be wet-nursed.

Some of the fishing rights protesters in Wat Botum

The exhausted protesters said there was nothing left to do but return to their villages

and get on with their lives.

During their long stay in Phnom Penh, Choeun and other representatives of the fishing

families sought help from the National Assembly, Senate, Council of Ministers, Prince

Norodom Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen's cabinet.

Choeun said all the government officials they met simply stalled the protesters,

telling them meetings to find a solution to their case were in progress.

"I think they only made excuses. We just received a lot of lies while we were

here. Government officers, as well as members of the National Assembly and Senate,

just lied to us," said Choeun.

In March, MAFF issued a letter to National Assembly and Senate saying provincial

authorities agreed to give the fishing families eight sites within the lot.

Choeun said because the boundaries of the eight sites had not been set, the protesters

did not trust the offer and continued petitioning the Government for assistance.

Then in mid-May the National Assembly and Senate again asked MAFF to investigate

the complaints and find a solution.

Ly Kim Han, Director of MAFF's Fisheries Department, said the area which the protesters

claim as their own has belonged to the State since the time of Sihanouk's regime

and is part of Kampong Thom's Fishing Lots Three and Four.

A fisheries expert said the problems faced by the Kampong Thom protesters are similar

to those faced by fishers all around the lake.

He said fisheries management and administration is based on 1987 law which he described

as being even more archaic than Cambodia's forest laws. MAFF is largely responsible

for the current situation, he said. "No one is monitoring the fishing, only

the income."

He said many lots on the lake were designated "Research Lots" by MAFF in

1996. This placed them under full management control of the Fisheries Department

in Phnom Penh, cutting out the provincial offices.

Little research about the state of the fish stocks is being conducted, but the price

demanded for many of the "Research Lots" has jumped threefold since their

new designation, he said.



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