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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers continue to fight for their land

Villagers continue to fight for their land

Four years after they began fighting the well-connected concessionaire DM Group, members of the ethnic Tampuon who remain in Svay Sor village are exhausted.

While the DM Group has seen its complaints against villagers and activists routinely heard at court, those filed by the affected families remain stalled or are ignored.

“If I’d given $10,000 to the court, my case would’ve been processed to trial,” Seoung Yarat, 50, said with disgust.

Yarat, a village representative, has been fighting two battles against the DM Group – one on behalf of 60 families who allege the rubber company has illegally encroached upon 260 hectares of their farmland, the other to seek justice after being shot in the leg by a police officer moonlighting as a security guard, who fired on him during a 2009 protest.

As he spoke, Yarat, whose leg had to be amputated following the injury, pointed a walking stick at the land in front of him. Spread before are hectares of blighted land, freshly planted with rubber saplings.

At the very edge of the plantation stand five spare homes.

“We now work for the company to get some money to buy milled rice, since we don’t have the farmland anymore,” Yarat said.

DM Group, which first moved into the district in 2005, has been steadily acquiring land in three communes occupied by indigenous Tampuon villagers.

Over the years the company has amassed at least 1,500 hectares by under-compensating and intimidating residents, rights monitors maintain, forcing scores of villagers to flee from their ancestral homeland. In Svay Sor, 40-year-old Plenh Thaem has seen her neighbours leave one by one.

“We ethnic minorities depend solely on our farmland. Losing the land means killing us,” she says. Residents have lodged complaints with all relevant institutions “but none of them have resolved it”.

“I heard the local authorities dare not to resolve the problem because the land is owned by an excellency, a tycoon. Where is the independence and neutrality of the court?”

Sitting nearby, Voeun Phor echoes the complaints of his neighbour.

“If the courts and authorities weren’t corrupt, they would take procedural measures on our complaints. [Because they haven’t], it means they’re committing corruption,” he says, pausing to take a drag of his cigarette. “We can only now wait for the company to bulldoze our land and even the lives of the rest of the residents.”

Deputy prosecutor Ros Sarom said the case was first thrown out because all villagers have been adequately compensated by the company and that villagers are simply requesting anew the same investigation.

While villagers’ complaints hang in limbo or are ignored, those filed by DM Group and local authorities have gone through with ease. At least 12 Tampuon activists have had criminal complaints filed against them, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. Most recently, three rights workers and a journalist have been called in for questioning over allegations filed by a commune chief who accused the men of incitement.

CCHR President Ou Virak was questioned at Ratankkiri Provincial Court yesterday in relation to charges of inciting villagers to rebel against authorities, criminal damage and defamation. On Wednesday and Thursday, Sok Ratha, a journalist for Radio Free Asia, and Adhoc activists Pen Bonnar and Chhay Thy face questioning over similar allegations.

The villagers remaining in the midst of the dispute, meanwhile, complain of seeing no legal recourse for their own allegations.

Clad in black, Norn Chhai has just returned from scavenging for byproducts in the woodlands near her home. Without access to farmland, he and the remaining Svay Sor villagers are increasingly seeking sustenance from the forest.

“Ethnic minorities like us can’t be compared even to beasts,” he says. “They shot at us and grabbed the land from us. And they live in happiness while we, the owners of the land, live in grief.”

DM Group, for its part, has little sympathy for such complaints – local representatives have told the Post that villagers in Svay Sor agreed to the compensation terms. (Villagers dispute the claim, saying they have received no compensation.)

Say Chamroeun, a representative for DM Group defended the company’s actions, says that villagers were paid years ago.

He also said the land has since been resold to another company, owned by a tycoon he knew only as Nang, though he declined to share ownership documents and NGOs following the case said they have heard of no such transfer.

“Furthermore, I bought the land from the villagers legally without taking advantage, as accused. If we did not resolve for them, we will not live in good happiness,” said Chamroeun.

The local government, meanwhile, denied villager claims that no action had been taken on their complaints.

“There is no land dispute raised by civil society …  this case is years old,” said Pav Hormphan, provincial governor. “If there is such a case, we would work it out.”

He also insisted villagers had exaggerated their claim to the land. “Those people are tricky, because they sold the land out but then shouted that they are the victims of a land grab.”

But those investigating the dispute have a markedly different take. Adhoc’s Bonnar said there’s no doubt the villagers lost their farmland due to encroachment and that authorities won’t take their complaints seriously “because there are a number of powerful people involved”.

“Now, they have no farmland for cultivation of their own. [Instead], they work as labourers [for the company] to stay alive.”

To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com

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