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Villagers voice defiance as eviction nears

KAMPONG THOM PROVINCE
ON the eve of the expected eviction of Kraya commune, besieged by police since a long-running land dispute flared into violence last week, villagers said they were bracing for another clash with authorities.

“If they want to talk, we will talk. If they want to use violence, we will welcome it,” said Pou Kin, a representative of the community in Kampong Thom’s Santuk district.

Other villagers vowed a repeat of the unrest that erupted on November 16, when 200 demonstrators torched several police vehicles and four excavators belonging to a Vietnamese rubber company that has laid claim to land villagers say belongs to them.

Afraid to sleep in their homes in case the authorities arrive before dawn, some villagers elected to sleep instead in the cassava fields just outside town. Many congregated in the close quarters of a village pagoda. Others locked themselves in their homes – which after today could be reduced to ruins.

A few villagers made an early escape. With the eviction looming, four of the 13 people still sought for their roles in last week’s riot successfully
broke through the police cordon on Monday night, escaping into the forest.

“The four men fled the commune last night after seeing their names on an anonymous letter, which called them ringleaders and urged other villagers to turn them in,” said Prom Saroth, a commune resident.

“Tonight our worries are doubled. First, for our own security during tomorrow’s eviction. Second, for the safety of our people who fled into the forest. We don’t know whether or not they were arrested, or what might have happened to them.”

The letter was part of the authorities’ overall tactic of using threats to coerce villagers into accepting land compensation offers, he said.

Ek Mat Muoly, Santuk district police chief, said: “We’re not concerned with this supposed anonymous letter because it was an unofficial letter. We were keeping quiet and waiting for orders from our high-level officers.

“I think these people were afraid because they burned down police and private property and [Wednesday] is the deadline for them. I think we will get our orders to move out today.”

Seven people have so far been arrested in connection with the dispute, which centres on 8,000 hectares of land bought by rubber firm Tin Bean in 2007 but has been home to hundreds of families since 2004.

They have been charged with the destruction of private property after last week’s riot, during which villagers say military police charged them with clubs and axes. The authorities eventually withdrew, but surrounded the commune and lay down a dragnet for 20 villagers they say masterminded the incident.

Today “we will go enforce the eviction deadline if they do not agree to get our compensation policy, because we need to respect the government’s decision”, Santuk district Governor Pich Sophea said Tuesday.

Villagers have been offered land and a house in exchange for leaving the disputed property.

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