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Protesters back at their village

FOUR villagers who fled their homes in Battambang province to avoid arrest in 2008 returned to their village yesterday for the first time in two years, after surfacing in Phnom Penh over the weekend to join a protest that was quashed by police.

On Sunday, about 50 villagers from Battambang’s Kors Kralor district were forcibly dragged onto a bus and returned to the countryside after staging a protest near Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home in the capital.

The villagers were seeking to draw attention to their long-running land dispute with Long Sidare, a military police officer in Phnom Penh.

Van Dy, 42, one of four fugitives who participated in the protest yesterday and then returned home to Duon Ba village after a two-year absence, said that she had come out of hiding to support her community and prevent further loss of villagers’ land.

Villagers say that Long Sidare has, since September 2008, been trying to evict 415 families from 1,672 hectares of land to make way for the development of a rubber plantation. So far, he has allegedly forced more than 100 families from the land.

“I also decided to return because I am afraid that the provincial court will arrest more innocent villagers,” Van Dy said.

On August 22, 2008, Van Dy and four other village representatives were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for robbery and destruction of public property.

Four from the group went into hiding after the verdict, but one representative, Hun Sengly, was arrested and is serving out his sentence. Van Dy has also promised further protests if the man is not released.

“We have asked the authorities to release our representative. If they refuse, the entire village will go to Battambang prison and ask to stay together,” she said, and added that additional protests will be held in Phnom Penh.

On Sunday, five people, including a 3-year-old, suffered injuries during the altercation with police, who eventually forced the entire group onto a Battambang-bound bus.

However, Luong Sokha, a villager who participated in the protest, said that authorities had dropped the group more than 20 kilometres from their village.

“The authorities cheated the villagers yet again,” Luong Sokha said.

“They only took us as far as the Banan district office and dropped us there.”.

Battambang deputy governor Saing Southong said the case was “extremely complicated”, but that provincial authorities would find a resolution for those affected.

“In accordance with government policy, we will provide them with a social land concession in the area,” he said.

Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, called the authorities’ violent response to Sunday’s protest “unjustified” and “disgraceful”.

“The authorities should quickly find a resolution to this dispute and for the man in prison. Otherwise, the people will not stop protesting because they are losing their land,” he said.

During the first six months of 2010, about 60 people were arrested in connection with land disputes, he added.

Long Sidare could not be reached to provide a comment yesterday.

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