Roughly 100 villagers from Kampot province gathered at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park yesterday to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene in a long-running land dispute with an agricultural company which is owned by tycoon Chan Sothea.
The dispute erupted into a violent confrontation last week when workers with First Bio-Tech Agricultural (Cambodia) Co Ltd – which was granted a 10,000 hectare economic land concession (ELC) in 2005, now whittled down to 3,000 hectares – began tearing down homes that villagers had recently built on disputed land within the ELC.
The villagers, from Decho Aphivat commune, allegedly beat one of the workers and destroyed several company cars in the ensuing confrontation.
Journalist Chea Sytha and villagers Proeung Pran and Sok Pisey were charged with intentional acts of violence, damaging property and encroaching on public property. Villagers said the three men were still in pretrial detention as of yesterday and that a fourth villager had been arrested but released.
Oeun Sokun, 47, the wife of the journalist, begged for her husband’s release.
“Samdech, please help us to get land titles because we live in suffering,” Sokun said. “They burned our houses . . . They even burned our clothes.”
Protester Orn Saravion accused commune authorities of siding with the company and of not helping to solve the problem for villagers, who allege they lived on the land before it became an ELC.
“We started to hit the cars because the car was carrying the gasoline to burn people’s houses,” Saravion said. “Is it wrong to protect our property?”
But Deputy Kampot Governor Sim Vuthy said officials have documentation to prove that the disputed land belongs to the company.
“We arrest them because they committed crimes red-handed,” Vuthy said.
“They destroyed cars and hit authorities and experts who educated them. Therefore, we made a case and sent it to the court and arrested them.”
First Bio-Tech Agricultural could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Villager Saing Phally, 57, said a representative from Hun Sen’s cabinet took their petition and that they would wait to see the results.