In Lum Phat district’s Seda commune, the message from villagers attending yesterday’s Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ land forum was clear: We’ve been duped.
The mixed Khmer and ethnic minority villagers said they were coerced into accepting the phenomenally low price of US$150 per hectare of land from the DM Group and other private plantation companies and were forced to thumb-print documents leaving them with effectively no legal recourse – and no land – plunging the semi-nomadic community into even greater poverty and uncertainty.
Kuch Moly, a Funcinpec lawmaker who sat on the three-person panel at the forum alongside Seda commune chief Thom Phain, rebuked villagers for filing complaints when they have already accepted compensation.
He and fellow lawmaker Ou Chanrith, from the opposition Human Rights Party who also sat on the panel, were handed a complaint thumbprinted by 29 families whose houses had been burned to the ground by the DM Group in June of last year.
“Villagers who have accepted the money for the land and have thumb-printed documents must remove their name from the letter for me to accept it,” Moly said, drawing a furious reaction from some participants.
Counter-intuitively, he also acknowledged it was hard for villagers at the grassroots level to draw attention to their problems.
“The local authorities often report good things to Prime Minister Hun Sen, but they do not report when there is something bad in their area. This forum is a good chance for villagers to say their problems,” he said.
Soeung Sarath, 50, who had his leg blasted by a provincial policeman moonlighting as a DM Group security guard in 2008, attended the forum. The leg later had to be amputated.
“This was a warning shot,” he said at the forum. “This is a lesson,” he said, for what happens when you attempt to protect your land.
Although problems with authorities have somewhat abated, villagers said they were not “buddies” with the local authorities.
Initially, a small crowd of about 50 waited expectantly to talk to lawmakers and rights groups.
CCHR said this was because the authorities had told the villagers over the weekend that the forum would be cancelled, after cracking down on a training workshop held on Friday.
However, about half an hour into the forum, a crowd of more than 200 had gathered. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party commune chief was also one of the latecomers and took his seat as one of three on the panel addressing the crowd.
Seda commune has no electricity and no running water. Stacks of drying, chopped wood are stashed under the simple wooden houses that are not separated by fences or roads.
The company had given the villagers US$150 per hectare of land they took for a plantation. A long-term resident said he had purchased a hectare of land for $600 in 2004, and now he could sell it for $50,000.
The indigenous people, who did not have land titles, were faced with a choice: accept the nominal $150 payment, or don’t and have the company take their land anyway.
Villager representatives at the forum delivered desperate soliloquies of hardship, discrimination and fear for the future.
A Tampoun ethnic minority participant, Pang Nhoy, 67, said that in his village, people had been farming since 2002, but in 2011 DM Group came to measure and control the land.
“We ethnics can only do farming; we are not able to do business. Please find justice for us, or we get poorer and poorer until we die one day,” he shouted.
“You are not right that you get my land and burned down my cottages. We are ethnics, so we are not human beings? It is not acceptable. I beg the lawmakers here please help us,” he implored, drawing impassioned cheers from the forum participants.
Opposition Human Rights Party lawmaker Ou Chanrith, who sat on the three-person panel, said indigenous people in Ratanakkiri lack education on their land rights.
“They agree to sell their land, agree to a very low price and now they want their land back, but there is nothing that can be done,” Chanrith said, adding that despite their complaints to authorities, they had been told to accept the money and leave.
Speaking by telephone, DM Group Ratanakkiri manager Thvar Kanoun rejected the grievances of the villagers.
“There is no land-grabbing from those people. They cleared the company’s lands and we gave them $150 per hectare to stop clearing, not to buy from them,” he said, adding that the company had never used security guards on them.
“We used to have land dispute with them, but it was completely solved.”
DM Group has been cultivating rubber trees, cassava and soy beans, Kanoun said, but he did not know the total hectares owned by the company.
Pav Hamphan, Rattanakiri provincial governor, criticised yesterday’s forum.
“I do not understand. Human rights workers [CCHR] often educate at the disputed area. It is a useless forum and is not an educational forum because it does the same thing – nothing,” he said.