Nearly 100 armed military and provincial police personnel have been on standby in camps across Kampong Thom’s Doung commune in Prasat Balang district since April 27 as villagers protest in an ongoing land dispute, a civil society group claimed.
However, the provincial governor said the police had been deployed to protect the safety of officials demarcating social land concessions for villagers.
Sok Ratha, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said on Wednesday that an estimated 80 to 90 members of the security forces had been sent from Doung Communal Hall to sites across the commune. Vehicles had also been deployed.
Villagers are afraid for their safety, with some remaining in their houses and others going to live with relatives in other provinces, he claimed.
Ratha said villagers in Doung commune are locked in a land dispute, accusing provincial authorities of confiscating their ancestral rice fields. The deployment of armed police in this situation was against the law, he said.
“If [we] look at the role of the security forces, they are meant to serve the people and protect their interests and security."
“And if we look at the Criminal Code, the use of armed security forces is not allowed in certain situations, such as against unarmed citizens and those peacefully exercising their freedom of expression and their right to protest. This must be prohibited,” Ratha said.
However, Kampong Thom provincial governor Sok Lou said the deployment of security forces was not intended as a threat but was to safeguard villagers’ legal property. It was also meant to protect officers demarcating social land concessions so people could receive land. The process began in 2009.
“The police forces have been deployed to protect the security and safety of officers sent in to carry out work on social land concessions. This deployment is correct because it has been done to protect the legal property of the state,” Lou said.
The Kampong Thom provincial governor’s comments came as villagers in Doung commune claimed that local authorities have prevented 470 families from entering their rice fields for more than two weeks.
The Post could not reach two villager representatives for comment on Thursday.
However, residents involved in the dispute told Radio Free Asia on Monday that some villagers have been in hiding for more than a week after the deployment, with some escaping into the forest in fear of arrest.
Lou maintained that these were villagers who had attempted to illegally grab state land involved in the social concession scheme run in collaboration with the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction and the Ministry of Interior.
The project is being implemented by the provincial hall, he said, and he requested villagers go there to find a resolution if they had a legal right to land.