Meanchey district police and security guards yesterday clashed with about 70 Koh Kong province villagers at the capital’s Samaki Rainsy pagoda, shoving and pushing them as they tried to make their way to the Ministry of Land Management.
The villagers were attempting to follow up on a petition they submitted last week asking for intervention in their long-running feuds with sugar concessionaires Koh Kong Sugar Industry, Koh Kong Plantation and Heng Huy Agricultural Company.
As the villagers tried to exit the pagoda, where they’ve stayed since August 3, police officials and security guards formed a human chain to prevent them from leaving. A shoving match ensued as authorities attempted to close the gate, which villagers then forced open.
“We also pushed the police and security guards to make our way out,” said Phav Nhoeung, a representative for villagers from Sre Ambel district, who are demanding the return of their land or greater compensation.
Nhoeung said he even tried to crawl between the legs of the security personnel to get out but was hit on the head.
The villagers, who represent myriad land disputes dating back years, have recently stepped up pressure on the three sugar firms, including petitioning Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this year to intervene.
While the villagers visited the European Union Embassy and Ministry of Land Management on August 4 without incident, Meanchey District Deputy Governor Dy Rath Khemrun said the group was stopped yesterday because they represented a threat to public order.
“We wanted them to stay in the pagoda, and we promised to ask officials from the Land Management Ministry to come and talk to them about the petition,” he said, insisting that there had been no violence between villagers and security personnel.
Thach Ha Sam Ang, the pagoda’s chief monk, said he did not witness the scuffle but that he did negotiate with Khemrun to allow the villagers to stay in the pagoda as they waited for a ministry official.
“I agreed to close the gate only for negotiations, but not if they wanted to trap them,” he added.
Following negotiations with Secretary of State Tep Thun, who pledged to visit the province on August 18 to further investigate their grievances, villagers agreed to return to Koh Kong today.
Contacted yesterday, Heng Huy, president of agricultural firm Heng Huy Company, said he had controlled the land since 1993 and that the villagers only began occupying it in 2007.
“But, the conflict was solved in 2010, when I gave some of the land to the villagers and used the rest for growing sugarcane,” he said.
Given the multiplicity of claims against the three companies, Equitable Cambodia director Eang Vuthy said he was unaware of the specific grievances involved yesterday, but said authorities needn’t have gotten physically aggressive.
“Basically, these people are asking for intervention and have come to find a solution,” he said. “They should be allowed to talk to the ministry.”
Additional reporting by Ananth Baliga