With a looming deadline to move still two days away, police yesterday stormed tiny Rayum commune in Mondulkiri province, dismantling and burning at least 50 homes belonging to villagers embroiled in a land dispute with a Vietnamese rubber company.
Seng Channy, a villager representative who escaped arrest, said that a group of more than 15 armed provincial police used a chainsaw to tear down their houses, then burned them, telling villagers not to protest.
“They threatened that if we dared to confront them, they would instantly arrest us,” he said. “If today you didn’t agree to thumbprint [a document consenting to leave], they will dismantle and incinerate your house without taking responsibility for the damage.”
Yesterday’s conflagration comes only a few days after authorities burned down four of the villagers’ homes.
“All the villagers dared not to protest against them, but only stood looking as their houses got burned and ruined, because all the soldiers and police were armed,” said Seng Channy.
Buth Preang, 47, said that villagers are living in fear, and that the number of police is now greater than the number of villagers.
“We refused to give a thumbprint to them, and we will stay at our house to see what they will actually do to us,” he said.
Now, says Buth Preang, authorities are dismantling houses gradually, telling villagers to completely tear down their houses, or risk authorities returning to tear them down tomorrow.
“They accused us of occupying the company’s land, so why doesn’t the company chase us?” he asked. “Or does the company employ the authorities to abuse us?”
Authorities claim that villagers live on 28,000 hectares granted to three similarly named Vietnamese rubber companies: Pacific Grand Joint-Stock Company Limited, Pacific Lotus Joint-Stock Company Limited and Pacific Pearl Joint-Stock Company Limited.
Official documents, however, show that all the land was granted to the Pacific Pearl Joint-Stock Company in a concession that is technically illegal, due to its size.
Man Saran, the district police chief in Koh Nhek, said that “of course” authorities started dismantling houses today, but that he had not been briefed on the number of houses because he was busy in a meeting at Mondulkiri provincial hall.
Khlout Sophea, deputy district police chief in Koh Nhek and director of the eviction, said that authorities didn’t forcibly burn any houses, and that they decided to dismantle the homes with the villagers’ consent.
“We didn’t force them, because we will follow the provincial initiative tomorrow,” he said.
He added that authorities wouldn’t respond with violence to villagers, and would only prevent them from interfering, despite what he characterised as their disdain for his authority.
“What we have done is based on the law,” he said.
Svay Sam Eang, deputy provincial governor of Mondulkiri, declined to comment yesterday, but told the Post on Tuesday that authorities are not required to give villagers compensation, but “if any villagers volunteer to leave by themselves, we will offer them a little”.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator with human rights group Adhoc, said he is very concerned for the villager’s safety, due to both the remoteness of the area and last week’s shooting in Kratie, in which a 14-year-old girl was killed.
“We appeal to the authorities to find a peaceful solution, and give them appropriate compensation in compliance with the administration and appropriation law,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at firstname.lastname@example.org