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Villagers from Bakeo district hold placards in front of court yesterday during a land dispute protest in Ratanakkiri province. ADHOC

Gem miners protest in Ratanakkiri

About 200 villagers gathered in Ratanakkiri’s provincial capital of Banlung town yesterday, calling for a resolution to a longstanding land dispute in the province’s gem-rich Bakeo district.

In 2013, a man named Heng Socheat sued five village representatives from the district’s Keh Chung commune, alleging they had been squatting on 186 hectares of land he bought at an unknown date.

But 112 families from the commune claim they have been growing plants and mining gems on the land since 2005, which they say belongs to the state and cannot be sold to private individuals.

“[Socheat] got a land title in secret to grab the land, and we didn’t know about it at the time,” said South Soeurn, one of the five village representatives being sued.

“Our villagers dig in the gem mines to survive. We are protesting to ask Prime Minster Hun Sen and [National Assembly President] Heng Samrin to solve the problem for us,” he said.

A hearing in the suit was scheduled for yesterday at the provincial court, but delayed to a later date due to the absence of Socheat’s lawyer.

Villagers gathered at the office of rights group Adhoc in Banlung with plans to protest at the court, but the march was called off after the hearing was delayed, said Chhay Thy, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator.

Socheat could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Ratanakkiri’s Bakeo district, situated near the border with Vietnam, is a centre for gem mining. Although lucrative, much of the mining occurs “informally” and with little regulation.

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