Kampong Speu Province
SIX villagers in Kampong Speu province were questioned in provincial court on Thursday over allegations they incited 1,000 people to protest, prompting claims that authorities are trying to intimidate those involved in a land dispute with a well-known businessman.
The six were accused of inciting villagers during the protest late last month, which saw 1,000 Omlaing commune farmers express concerns that they could lose their rice fields to a sugar company owned by Ly Yong Phat, a senator with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Phal Vannak, an Omlaing commune villager who was among those questioned on Thursday, said court officials ordered him to agree not to incite further protests.
“They ordered us to give thumbprints and stop doing it,” Phal Vannak said through tears. “If I do it again, I will face arrest. They let us go, but I am still afraid.”
Like others involved in the protest, he said it had been peaceful.
“They accused me of using violence and persuading villagers to go against the company,” he said. “I told them that I did not do what they accused me of. I just joined with my villagers to protest.”
Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company has been awarded a 9,000-hectare concession that includes land on which the Omlaing farmers live.
Local authorities and company officials have said the farmers will not lose their land.
However, villagers point out that the company has sent a number of bulldozers and excavators to the area, and that military police are stationed on sections of it.
On Thursday, Kampong Speu Governor Kang Heang said the six villagers questioned in court had incited farmers during the February protest, and that about 100 protesters gathered in front of the courthouse did not actually live on the concession land.
“The villagers who came to protest in front of provincial court today, they are not real villagers in Omlaing commune. They are from outside,” he said.
He went on to say that the questioning was intended as a warning to the farmers.
“They did not arrest the six representatives. The court just warned them to stop persuading the villagers to protest. Then they released them,” he said.
Rights monitors, however, expressed alarm at the session.
“I would like to urge the provincial court to please stop accusing villagers,” said Chan Soveth, programme officer for the rights group Adhoc. “Even though they have only questioned them, the villagers are worried.”
He added that the standoff between farmers and officials could descend into violence.
“Please avoid violence to settle the problem, because villagers just want to get a settlement from authorities,” he said.
Ly Yong Phat could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in an interview last week, the senator said villagers had nothing to fear.
“The villagers don’t need to be worried about their farmland,” he said. “We will not take over their land.”
Ly Yong Phat owns three sugar companies operating throughout Cambodia. One of them, the Angkor Sugar Company, was at the centre of a separate dispute in Oddar Meanchey province that saw 100 families driven off their land in October.