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Villagers on the brink plead for assistance

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A woman affected by a land dispute in Kampong Chhnang prays during a meeting at Adhoc’s Phnom Penh office yesterday.

More than 150 residents of a village in Kampong Chhnang province gathered in Phnom Penh yesterday to appeal for financial assistance to pay a tax the provincial court has imposed before it will consider complaints against a company they accuse of grabbing their farmland. The company, KDC International, is run by Chea Kheng, the wife of the Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy. 

“Ever since the company bulldozed our land [in 2008] we have not been able to grow crops,” San Sokhom, a resident of Lor Peang village, told a press conference at the head office of rights group Adhoc yesterday.  

“We have no food,” she said, appealing to national and international NGOs, and donor agencies that support the government, to “help Lor Peang villagers raise US$10,000 so we can find justice and survive”.

The press conference was part of a renewed effort by Adhoc to draw attention to the bitter dispute, which has seen villagers jailed, others fined, and one fleeing the country to seek refugee status in Thailand. Adhoc’s campaign follows a decision by the provincial court to require the farmers to pay it a fee to accept complaints against KDC. In June, the court dismissed a joint civil complaint from the villagers, telling them to submit individual complaints. On July 29, court president Tieng Sitha called for an about US$40 per-hectare fee for land involved in each of the complaints, Adhoc said, adding that after it attempted to help the villagers have the fees waived because they were too poor to pay them, the court raised them by four times on August 10.

The loss of farmland has devastated Lor Peang village.

“Malnutrition has become a problem. Children are underweight and prone to infections,” resident Pheng Rom said earlier this year in an interview. Village committee member Yong Bo estimated that as many as 40 youths and children, some as young as 13, had been smuggled into Thailand, for work. “We cannot afford to feed them,” he explained. They will petition King Norodom Sihamoni for intervention today. Sam Pracheameanit, chief of cabinet at the Justice Ministry, said the ministry had not seen the petition yet.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING VINCENT MACISAAC

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