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Talks address Kampong Speu dispute

Rights groups say not all affected villagers were invited to boundary discussion.

ABOUT 500 villagers from Omlaing commune in Kampong Speu province’s Thpong district met with authorities on Tuesday to discuss setting boundaries between their farmland and land granted to the Phnom Penh Sugar Company, though many who attended said afterwards that they still had concerns about how the dispute would be resolved.

Meanwhile, some 600 villagers continued to block National Road 52 until early in the afternoon to protest what they described as insufficient efforts on the part of the company, owned by Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat, to work towards a resolution to the ongoing land row.

Representatives from the company were not present for Tuesday’s negotiations, which were held at the Omlaing commune office and attended by Deputy Provincial Governor Pen Sambou, Thpong District Governor Tuon Song and Commune Chief Hab Dam.

Well-known media personality Soy Sopheap, who serves as a commentator on Bayon TV, took charge of the talks, villagers said.

“Soy Sopheap ordered the villagers to write down details on a document about how many hectares of land we have and where our land is, and then put our thumbprints” on the document, said San Tho, a representative of the villagers.

He said villagers were hesitant to give their thumbprints, and that many were concerned that the government would try to use the document against them.

Hi Hoeun, a villager who also attended the negotiations, said, “We are afraid the authorities will cheat us.... If we agree to put our thumbprints [on the document] we are afraid they will change the document and make it look like we agreed that the company could grab our land.”

He added that he was also concerned by statements from officials at the meeting indicating that the rights of villagers who did not attend would not be honoured.

“The authorities said they will not be responsible for villagers who did not attend the meeting and did not put their thumbprints on the document,” he said. “It’s an injustice, because the authorities did not invite all the villagers.”

Ouch Leng, land programme officer for the rights group Adhoc, also said that not all villagers who stand to be affected by the concession had been invited to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, expressed concern that villagers not present at the meeting would not be given the opportunity to provide the details of their land claims.

“We are worried the authorities ... will not settle the problem,” he explained. “If they want to get the real statistics, they should go to the farmland and let the villagers show them where their land is.”

After the meeting, however, Soy Sopheap said villagers would be given another chance to sign the document today. He added that over the next month officials would work with villagers to finalise accurate measurements of their land.

“We will let them show us where their land is, but if they show us forest land we will not provide them with compensation because that is state-owned land,” Soy Sopheap said.

He said the information gathered from villagers would be passed on to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had set aside about 1,050 hectares for the villagers in case the company encroached on their land.

Eleven villages in Omlaing commune – home to more than 2,000 families – have been affected by the 9,000-hectare concession granted to the Phnom Penh Sugar Company.

Pen Sambou and Ly Yong Phat both declined to comment on Tuesday’s meeting.

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