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Prey Lang activists, police face off

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Police confront villagers at the CRCK rubber firm in Prey Lang forest, in Kampong Thom, yesterday.

Kampong Thom province
The long journey of 300 villager-activists intent on exposing illegal logging in the endangered Prey Lang forest ended on the doorstep of rubber firm CRCK yesterday.

About 5pm, the villagers, some of whom had been walking for more than a week, emerged from the forest, broke down CRCK barricades and entered the grounds of the rubber firm – although police stopped them short of entering, and inspecting, the company’s sawmill.

Thirty-five-year-old Sen Sothea, of Stung Treng province, said that after numerous encounters with illegal loggers during their journey, he and the other villagers had no intention of leaving without achieving that particular goal.

“We have to go inside the company land and see the saw- mill, because they say they have never cut the trees,” he said.

“If they do nothing illegal, please let us go inside.”

Sen Sothea added that villagers planned to spend the night inside the company’s land concession, fearing that if they left, the police will prevent their return. “Even though they may shoot me dead, I have
to try to go inside the company to see the sawmill,” he said.

Another Stung Treng native, 55-year-old Eang Pisey, said  villagers had to stand against the company to protect the forest for the younger generation.

“We have to stand up to protect the trees,” she said. “Even if we have to walk longer than this, we will still continue to walk if we can protect the forest.”

Svay Thoeun, a villager from Preah Vihear, said he believed  the villagers should have the support of the authorities, but voiced a popular belief when he added that he thought those same authorites were likely protecting the rubber firm in return for cash.

Sandan district police officer Pen Bun swiftly rejected those claims, saying he had “never taken money from the company”, and that the reason he tried to prevent villagers entering CRCK property was because he feared they would destroy the firm’s rubber trees.

Puth Hou, a military police officer from Sandan district, added that he had never participated in illegal logging and that the only ones likely to benefit from such activity would be high-ranking officers.

Journalists heading to the scene of yesterday’s protests were delayed by a roadblock and about 20 police officers who barred their path. An argument ensued as police angrily insisted the reporters would need a letter of permission from the Ministry of Interior to continue, but ultimately relented after a 15-minute stand-off.

Sandan district governor Toun Mory said yesterday the villagers were breaking the law by tearing down the barriers and entering the company’s property, as CRCK’s 6,155-hectare concession was legally obtained from the government.

Chhim Savuth, project coordinator for the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the authorities should be happy to have villagers who were willing to protect the forest, a likelihood he did not put much faith in.
“I think the reason that they did not allow villagers to go inside the company is because authorities have some [financial] interest in the company,” Chhim Savuth said.

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