Ethnic minorities from Ratanakkiri province put on a united front in Banlung May 23 to protest alleged land-grabbing and the illegal logging of their ancestral lands in Cambodia’s remote northeast.
Members of a range of ethnic groups traveled to Bunlung from around the province to demonstrate against perceived neglect from the government in land affairs, with more than 250 signing a petition
calling for assistance. The protestors honored a request not to march through the provincial capital,
alleviating fears of a violent clash with police who maintained a heavy presence during the demonstration.
RATANAKKIRI – The plan had been for hundreds of ethnic minority people to march through the center of the provincial capital of Banlung in one of the largest demonstrations yet over the illegal seizure and logging of their ancestral homelands.
But in the end, threats of arrest and a heavy police presence kept some 250 Jarai, Phnong, Kreung and Tompoun protesters confined to the tiny garden of a local human rights office, where on May 23 they instead signed a petition demanding that the government enforce land rights’ laws in the remote northeastern province.
This decidedly muted rally, however, was the latest display of anger over what rights groups say is the exploitation of some of Cambodia’s most vulnerable communities.
Impoverished, disenfranchised and with their ancient, semi-nomadic way of life already under threat from development, Cambodia’s ethnic minorities have also become perhaps the easiest targets of an unprecedented property boom that has seen a run on their tribal lands.
“Neither the central government nor local officials consider the impact on minority groups when awarding land concessions to private companies,” said Pen Bunna, the Ratanakkiri coordinator for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc.
He added that many tribal people in the area were uneducated and did not fully understand their rights when confronted with land speculators or smooth-talking local officials promising unlikely sums of cash for their land.
The country’s real estate market has over the past several years worked itself into a frenzy of buying and selling on the promise of easy riches, resulting in tens of thousands of people being uprooted, according to rights groups.
Long Dy, a villager from Konmom district, said he decided to attend the meeting in Banlung after a private company under license from the government logged more than 200 hectares of his community’s forestland in April.
“The ethnic minority groups are very concerned about the destruction of ancient forests,” he told the Post.
Complaints were made to commune and district authorities, but these were ignored, Dy said.
“If it doesn’t stop, sooner or later the natural forests will be extinguished. The villagers in the community don’t have the power to stop the logging and when we file petitions to the authorities, they do not help us,” he added.
Members of Ratanakkiri’s ethnic minorities sign a petition in Banlung on May 23 calling on the government help them solve land disputes in the northeastern province.
Protestors from Lumphat district told a similar story, saying logging trucks were a familiar sight along the region’s dusty forest roads.
Ieng Son, an ethnic Kreung, said he had lived a traditional life in Lumphat’s forests for more than 60 years until a few months ago when local villagers were prevented from entering the area.
Son said local authorities had justified the exclusion of Kreung people from the forests because of their traditional slash-and-burn agricultural practice, which officials said endangered the forest.
“I see the trucks that take the valuable timber from our ancient forest everyday and no local officials dare to seize it. But if a villager cuts some wood for building a house we will be arrested or fined,” Son told the Post in Banlung.
The quiet showdown between authorities and ethnic minority protesters marked a cooling of tensions following clashes in December where Banlung police turned fire hoses on protesting tribal people and prevented a workshop on land rights from taking place.
But it also illustrated the heavy-handedness which officials have been using to clamp-down on growing tribal dissent over land.
“Local authorities warned us that if any villagers dared to come to the meeting they would be arrested,” Vath Pieng, a 27-year-old from Taveng district, told the Post May 23 as he arrived at the meeting, held at the Banlung office of Cambodian rights group Adhoc.
“Some villagers were afraid of the warning and did not dare to come,” he added.
About 40 local and military police and two fire trucks were deployed around the meeting place and, although they did not interfere in proceedings, their presence angered Adhoc monitor Chan Soveth.
“The police have deployed fire trucks today not for the protection and security of the people but to threaten the rights and the will of villagers trying to seek justice,” Soveth said.
“How can they [Cambodia’s ethnic minorities] live when their lands are taken and they cannot enter their farms?” he asked.