POLICE in Takeo province’s Kirivong district surrounded the homes of 50 villagers on Thursday, ordering them to go to the district police office, where they were told to sign an agreement turning over their land to a local conservation NGO, villagers said.
The villagers, who had participated in a land dispute-related protest broken up by police in the capital a day earlier, have accused the NGO Chamreun Chiet Khmer of planting acacia trees on land they claim to have inhabited for more than 20 years.
Chan Sophal, a member of the premier’s bodyguard unit who lives on the disputed land in Takeo, said six police officers arrived at his village early on Thursday morning to arrest the leaders of Wednesday’s rally.
After those officers were unable to find the leaders, about 100 police officers returned and escorted the 50 villagers to district police headquarters, he said.
“Police came to find the representatives who went to Phnom Penh, but when they could not, they spread throughout the commune and forced 50 to go to their office to give the land to the NGO,” Chan Sophal said.
He added that all 50 had received summonses last month to appear in Takeo provincial court on April 23, but that they feared they would be arrested if they went.
“If we appear at the court on the scheduled date they will arrest us. And if we do not they will still arrest us. So now there are more than 500 families who really don’t know what to do,” he said.
Three villagers – Kov Pisey, 49, Chhoun Sarith, 49, and Hem Moeun, 48 – were arrested in connection with the case when the summonses issued on March 25.
One more villager, 31-year-old Em Tha, was arrested on Wednesday, Chan Sophal said.
The NGO began planting trees on the land in December 2008, he said. Hem Sakhorn, its director, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Provincial Governor Srey Ben said Thursday that he believed the village would benefit from the work of the NGO, which he said was “providing free trees for villagers who want to plant them”.
However, Ouch Leng, a land programme officer for the rights group Adhoc, said Thursday that the fresh round of summonses amounted to an act of intimidation on the part of the court and local officials.
“The authorities should not release summonses for villagers,” he said.
“Villagers have lived there for 20 years already. It’s a violation of their rights.”