ONE of three village representatives sought by police on charges related to a land dispute in Battambang province surfaced in Pailin province yesterday after hiding in the forest for the last week to avoid arrest.
“The three of us got lost and separated because the police were following and trying to arrest us. Now I don’t know where the other two representatives are,” said Van Dy, a 42-year-old village representative from Kors Kralor district’s Doun Ba commune.
“I had no food in the forest, so I had to eat different kinds of leaves,” she said. During her flight, she had avoided roads and populated areas, she said. She also asked that her exact location not be revealed.
Van Dy and two other village representatives went into hiding on August 12 after another representative, Nha Mak, was arrested at his home in Doun Ba commune on August 9.
On August 22, 2008, Van Dy, Nha Mak and three other village representatives were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for robbery and destruction of public property. One man, Hun Sengly, was arrested shortly after the verdict, and the others fled their homes.
Earlier this month the group emerged from hiding to lend support to their community, which is embroiled in a long-running land dispute with Long Sidare, a military police official in Phnom Penh.
Villagers say that since September 2008, Long Sidare has been trying to evict 415 families from 1,672 hectares of land to make way for the development of a rubber plantation. So far, he has successfully forced out more than 100 families.
Van Dy said that prior to Nha Mak’s arrest, authorities had promised to broker a resolution to the dispute. However, she said they had broken that promise by arresting Nha Mak.
“If I knew they were going to break their promise and try to arrest us, I would not have returned home,” she said.
Pour Prong, director of the Battambang provincial cabinet, said yesterday that local authorities had “never arrested people involved in a land dispute”.
However, Yin Mengly, a provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said the representatives had been convicted unjustly.
“The provincial authorities have said that the disputed land is a forest area, so when the military police filed a complaint against the villagers they were in the wrong,” he said. “Only the state can file a court complaint against people who take over state land.”