AROUND 100 soldiers descended Saturday on disputed land occupied by villagers in Kampong Speu province’s Thpong district, and villagers in Oudong district fled their homes amid fears of arrests following an altercation with police last Thursday, villagers said Sunday.
On Thursday, about 500 villagers from Omlaing commune in Thpong district burned down an office belonging to the Phnom Penh Sugar Company, owned by Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat, in relation to an ongoing land dispute.
Soldiers have now been sent to guard the disputed land, which is part of a 9,000-hectare concession to the sugar company.
Villager Hi Hoeun defended the burning on Sunday.
“We didn’t want to use violence, but we had to,” he said. “Local officers promised to settle our problem and told us to calm down ... but how can we calm down if we never get a response from the company or authorities?”
However, Kampong Speu Governor Kang Heang said, “What the villagers did is illegal because they violated the company’s property, so they will face the law if the company files a complaint against them.”
He also said that 90 percent of the villagers involved in the incident Thursday do not have land in the affected area.
Ly Yong Phat could not be reached for comment Sunday, and Chhean Kimsuon, a representative of Phnom Penh Sugar Company, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, village representatives in Oudong district’s Phnom Touch commune fled their homes late Saturday night after police were spotted in the commune, where an altercation Thursday resulted in the injury of 12 villagers and 14 local police.
“Last night at about 9:45pm, I ran away from home after I saw a policeman carrying a gun and flashlight, checking villagers’ houses and looking for representatives,” said Sun Bun Chhoun, a village representative.
Sun Bun Chhoun said he thought the police were looking to arrest leaders whom they suspected of inciting last Thursday’s protest.
However, Oudong district police Chief Khim Samon said police “did not go to make arrests or look for representatives”, adding that they were in the village on a routine patrol. “We always check the village because we’re afraid if the villagers lose a cow or buffalo they will blame us,” Khim Samon said.
According to a report released by the rights group Adhoc on Thursday, there have been 16 major cases of land disputes in which violence was used by authorities since January, during which villagers were threatened, accused of crimes, arrested or forced to flee their homes.
The report said 37 villagers have been questioned in court, and that 30 more stand to be called for questioning soon. It said 21 have been arrested and 18 seriously injured over land disputes in Phnom Penh as well as in Kampong Thom, Kampong Speu, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Takeo, Preah Sihanouk, Pursat, Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey, Koh Kong, Kandal and Battambang provinces.