POLICE in Battambang province arrested a village representative on Monday night after the man and three other fugitives came out of hiding to lend support to their community in a long-running land dispute with a Phnom Penh military police official.
Nha Mak, 40, was arrested at 5.30pm by Kors Kralor district police at his home in Doun Ba commune, said Luong Sokha, a village representative.
After the arrest, police and military police forces were deployed in Doun Ba commune to prevent villagers from going to their representative’s aid, he said.
Luong Sokha said villagers were able to prevent the arrest of the other three representatives by patrolling the area with machetes and gathering the entire village to sleep overnight in a central location.
“Police and military police have threatened villagers and told us that if anyone dares to leave the village they will be arrested,” he said.
In August 2008, Nha Mak and four other villagers were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for robbery and destruction of public property.
One villager, Hun Sengly, was arrested immediately following the verdict. The four others, including Nha Mak, went underground and did not surface until Sunday, when they helped stage a protest in Phnom Penh to draw attention to their row with Long Sidare, a military police officer.
Villagers say that since September 2008, Long Sidare has attempted to evict 415 families from 1,672 hectares of land to make way for a rubber plantation.
Van Dy, 42, one of four fugitives who returned home Monday after a two-year absence, said she feared that her arrest was imminent.
“Now I dare not live in my house or let the police see my face,” she said.
Lay Nang, Kors Kralor district police chief, said that about 10 police officers had been deployed near the village to “prevent violence” following the arrest. “But we are not trying to hunt down any other villagers,” he said.
Pour Prong, director of the Battambang provincial cabinet, said Nha Mak’s arrest was justified because of the verdict handed down in 2008.
“We have tried to find a resolution for the villagers, but they have not come to negotiate with us. Both [the villagers and Long Sidare] have taken over land that is state public property,” he said.
But Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said that local authorities had failed to make sufficient efforts to resolve the land dispute.