Police detain Dangkor villagers, activists in row over 18 hectares of farmland
EIGHT villagers were detained by Dangkor district police on Monday as they attempted to travel to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence in Takhmao to protest the alleged seizure of farmland they say belongs to them.
Villagers said that at around 8am, police blocked them along Chamkardong Street in Dangkor district, and that scuffles broke out when they tried to cross the police barriers.
Chhem Dara, a 40-year-old from Proka village in Dangkor district’s Prey Sar commune who took part in the protest, said police arrested eight villagers, including one woman, after accusing them of “looking down on them and throwing stones at them”.
“The police tried to prevent us from going to protest in front of the prime minister’s house and accused us of violating their rights,” he said. “We just want to get our farmland back to use together.”
Yeoun Oun, 44, who was arrested and taken to the Dangkor district police office, said the eight were not told why they were detained.
“We just wanted to protest in front of the prime minister’s house to ask for justice,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for local rights group Licadho, said the police also prevented rights workers from taking photographs of the protest, detaining three for a short time.
“Three human rights activists, two from Adhoc and one from Licadho, were detained for a short time because they tried to shoot photos. Later on they were released and got their cameras back, but the police had deleted all the pictures from their memory,” he said.
“The authorities tried to prevent people from protesting by using violence. They should try to find a peaceful way to settle the problem.”
In a statement issued on Monday, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) said it considered the police action to be one of “intimidation”, adding that rights groups had filed official complaints about the incident.
“The photo-erasing is also considered as another act of destruction of official documents without any permission from the owners and without any legal basis for confiscating them,” CHRAC stated.
“The photo-taking by the monitors is also not illegal since they took them in the public areas.”
The villagers say that 18 hectares of farmland belonging to 335 families in the community have been unlawfully seized by In Samon, deputy secretary general of the Ministry of Interior. Yeoun Oun said the village had filed several complaints to government departments and the Municipal Court since 2007, but had never received a response.
She said the land was claimed by In Samon in 1987, but that it was not until 20 years later that the villagers were told that he had legal title over the land and filed court complaints.
“The authorities always say to us that we have no documents to show them,” she said. “If we had the documents we would not go protest, we can get our land back.”
In Samon could not be reached for comment on Monday.
But Prey Sar commune chief Khat Sokhai said that the villagers have no land ownership documents because the local authorities and land-management office recognised In Samon as the lawful owner of the land since the 1980s.
“Mr Samon has legal documents and the villagers don’t have any documents, so I don’t know how to help them get their land back,” he said.
Local police say the arrests were made because of violent acts by the protesters.
“We arrested the villagers because they threw stones and sand at the police,” said Oul Sam Ol, the police chief of Prey Sar commune.
The police chief of Dangkor district, Born Sam Ath, added that the eight villagers had encouraged people to take part in an illegal protest, and that three policemen were injured in the ensuing clashes with the villagers.
He said seven of the eight had signed agreements at the police station agreeing not to press their claims on the land, since it “already has an owner”.
Only one of those arrested, whom he named as Mao Soly, had refused to agree to the terms and could face charges if In Samon decides to press them, Born Sam Ath said.
“I tried to ask that [Mao Soly] be released, but I don’t know if the landowner will agree or not,” Born Sam Ath said.
“We acted according to the law, because the land owner has controlled that land for over 20 years and also has the legal documents.
“The people have nothing and tried to say that the land is public land.”
According to a report issued by local housing rights advocacy group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut in April last year, more than 120,000 people have been displaced by evictions in Phnom Penh since 1990 – more than one in 10 of the capital’s current population.