A combined force of police, soldiers and military police last night set a deadline of 8am this morning for villagers in Mondulkiri province’s tiny Rayum commune to leave their homes or face forcible eviction.
Authorities, who have surrounded the village for a week, say the villagers’ homes sit on land belonging to a Vietnamese rubber company, and that any homes still standing this morning will be demolished.
Joint forces burned more than 50 homes on Tuesday and Wednesday, and today’s ultimatum has many villagers fearing for their safety, residents say.
Tha, 27, who declined to give his family name for fear of retribution, said that eviction forces tore down a number of homes yesterday, as authorities searched for three wanted village representatives that they accuse of instigating confrontation.
“They threatened us, saying that tomorrow at 8am there will be no houses in our village, and that they will arrest our villagers who ... stand against them,” he said. “Tomorrow we will decide to die in our homes. We will not move; dying on our land is better than running away.”
According to Tha, all of the villagers were unarmed, unlike the eviction forces.
“Tomorrow, if they still want to continue to do this, I think a lot of villagers will die at home,” he said.
Authorities say that villagers moved onto the land only after it was granted to three similarly named Vietnamese rubber companies.
However, official documents show that the 28,000 hectares were illegally given to one company called Pacific Pearl Joint-Stock Company in 2011.
Resident Var Vy, 29, said that the Rayum commune area is home to some communities that have been there for a long time, contrary to authorities’ claims.
“We have decided to die already,” he said, echoing the feelings of other residents. “We are not afraid, because we have no home besides this.”
Seng Channy, one of the three village representatives fleeing arrest, said that she would like to ask the government to allow villagers to stay.
“If authorities said that we are a new company, why couldn’t they grant that land as a social land concession for us?” she asked. “Why do they take our land to give it to the company?”
Khlout Sophea, deputy district police chief in Koh Nhek said that authorities only tore down the houses of consenting villagers, and that demolition will continue today. “What I did was just to comply with the high-level officer’s orders, because I am low-level,” he said.
Svay Sam Eang, deputy provincial governor in Mondulkiri, declined to comment, saying: “I am busy in a meeting.”
Yi Soksan, an investigator for human rights group Adhoc, said that authorities should find peaceful means to negotiate.
“If those villagers are newcomers and really have no land, the government should grant it as a social land concession,” he said. “Why does the government just care about the company, and not about their villagers?”
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at email@example.com reporting from Mondulkiri Province