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Villagers’ long march for land rights protest

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A group of more than 100 villagers from Kampong Svay district’s Sankoa commune protest outside Kampong Thom provincial court.

I would meet with [representatives] but if a throng of villagers comes, I will not find a resolution

More than 100 residents from four villages in Kampong Thom province marched around 30 kilometres from their commune to the provincial court and governor’s office yesterday to request the release of a community representative who was arrested in connection with a land dispute, villagers said yesterday.

Ear Sovanna, a resident of Krasainng Khor village in Kampong Svay district’s Sankoa commune, said yesterday that 53-year-old Khean Soeun, of Brasat village, was arrested under a court order from provincial prosecutor Pen Sarath for allegedly cursing staff from private company Doung Heng Sengsuna and destroying private property on May 28.

“The villagers just protected plantation land from being cleared, but the court issued an arrest warrant for [Khean Soeun] to be put in prison,” he said, adding that residents from Krasainng Khor, Brasat, Sleng Khpors and Chey villages had been affected by the dispute.

Ear Sovanna said that villagers had travelled on foot from their commune and if the court did not release Khean Soeun, they would continue to protest. Demonstrators carried photographs of Prime Minster Hun Sen and banners.

“The law is fair for those who have money, but for the poor, the law does not care or take action,” he said.

Choem Sunly, a commune council member who attended the procession, said yesterday that about 225 families had been affected after the company attempted to seize around 1,000 hectares of land this year, but the dispute had been ongoing since 2004.

“The arrest of the villagers’ representative is a threat to stop the protests against the company,” he said, adding that villagers would not return home unless Khean Soeun was released.

Representatives from Doung Heng Sengsuna Company could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Prosecutor Pen Sarath said yesterday that villagers had protested in front of the provincial governor’s office, not in front of the provincial court. “I don’t know about the arrest of the villager because another person did it,” he said.

Provincial governor Chhun Chhorn said yesterday that he had no power to release Khean Soeun.

“I have settled the problem for 30 families [in the area] already and now others have said that they are affected,” he said.  “I told two village representatives  that I would meet with them, but if a throng of villagers comes, I will not find a resolution for them.”

He added that villagers may have taken the company’s land and the company may have filed a complaint to apprehend them.

According to figures recorded by local rights group Adhoc and released on Thursday, at least 124 villagers involved in land disputes were summoned to court in the first five months of this year. Of those, 36 were arrested – of whom 18 remain in prison – while 88 escaped arrest.

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