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Land disputes flare in Kampong Speu

Kampong Speu Province

VIOLENCE erupted Thursday morning in two separate land disputes in Kampong Speu province – one in Oudong district and the other in Thpong district – resulting in the injury of more than 20 villagers and police, as well as the torching of a company’s offices.

An early-morning altercation between authorities and 88 families at Oudong district’s Phnom Touch commune broke out when the authorities tried to carry out a Supreme Court-ordered eviction of the families from a 65-hectare plot of land, villagers said Thursday. Twelve villagers and 14 local police were hurt in the brawl.

At about 6:45am police attempted to forcibly evict the residents so that they could bring in equipment to tear down their houses, but the eviction was thwarted by locals who attacked police with stones and bamboo clubs, and disrupted their advance with burning tyres, villagers said.

The police responded by beating them with batons and firing their weapons in the air and into trees where villagers had displayed photographs of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The land in Phnom Touch commune is claimed by the Meng Keth Company, owned by Taiwanese businessman Kuo Sheng. According to a copy of his citizenship request letter obtained by the Post, Kuo Sheng, 62, was granted Cambodian citizenship in 2001 after Hun Sen wrote to then-King Norodom Sihanouk recommending that he be naturalised due to his positive attitude and his role in developing Cambodia.

However, Sun Bun Chhoun, a village representative, insisted that the villagers haven’t sold their farmland to any businessman, and that they would give up their lives to protect it.

Describing the incident Thursday, Sun Bun Chhoun said, “The police did not explain; they just tried to tear down our houses”, adding that eight villagers were seriously hurt after being beaten by the police with batons.

According to another villager, San Mean, about 400 villagers and 150 police were involved in the incident.

“They shot at me, but the bullet just barely caught my ear … the police pushed a pregnant woman to the ground.... They did not care about villagers’ lives,” he said.

The altercation ended around 10:30am when the police withdrew to a nearby location with their equipment – including a fire engine and two excavators. Villagers, fearing the authorities would return, continued guarding their homes rather than take their injured to the hospital, he added.
“We have been here since 1979,” San Mean said, adding that he implored the authorities to stop trying to take over their land.

Ky Dara, a representative of the Meng Keth Company and a partner of Kuo Sheng, says his company bought 223 hectares of land between 1997 and 2000, and that they plan to plant acacia and coconut trees, and build a factory.

“If they say that they have lived there since 1979, please show us a copy of the land documents and we will provide them compensation, because since 1985 our government has released land documents to all Cambodian people,” he said.

“We have tried to avoid violence. We invited the villagers to negotiate, but they did not come, so now I have no idea what will happen to them,” he said, adding that one prosecutor was also injured in the altercation.

“We’ve decided to stop for a while and will find another way to settle this problem later,” he added.

Kampong Speu Governor Kang Heang said: “It’s a simple case: If the villagers beat the police, the police will beat them back.” He added that the authorities are looking to arrest several ring leaders they say are responsible for instigating the protest.

Ouch Leng, a land programme officer for the rights group Adhoc, said that according to his organisation’s research, the Meng Keth Company did not have the proper legal documents, and simply was trying to use force to take over the land at Phnom Touch commune.

“The authorities should not be using violence to settle these problems,” he added. “They should find a peaceful way to settle the issue.”

Company office torched
In a separate incident Thursday, about 500 villagers from Omlaing commune in Kampong Speu’s Thpong district burned down an office belonging to the Phnom Penh Sugar Company, owned by Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat, after failing to come to resolve their dispute with the business.

The disputed land in Thpong district is part of a 9,000-hectare concession to the company. Meanwhile, Ly Yong Phat, who owns sugar plantations in Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces that were developed following evictions, has also confirmed he will participate in a controversial partnership between businesses and the Cambodian military that some observers say could see soldiers used to further the aims of the private sector.

Suon Ly, a villager who joined the protest outside the offices, said people from 11 villages came to speak with company representatives about the land dispute, but that when nobody emerged to talk with the group, they decided to torch the company’s office buildings.

Suon Ly added that this is the third time they have tried to speak with representatives of the company.

Governor Kang Heang earlier this month tried to reassure villagers that the concession would not affect their farmland.

Villagers say the company originally offered compensation of US$200 per hectare of rice farmland and $100 per hectare of plantation land, but that as a group they decided to keep their land because they need it to grow rice, which is essential for their livelihoods.

Adhoc’s Ouch Leng said that the villagers “burned down five office buildings” because the authorities and representatives of the company had failed to respond to their requests for negotiations.

Chhean Kimsuon, a representative of Phnom Penh Sugar Company, refused to comment on the incident, and Senator Ly Yong Phat said he had not yet heard about the fire.

Kang Heang could not be reached for comment on the Thpong district dispute.

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