VILLAGERS whose homes were bulldozed and then burned to the ground by armed officials in an ongoing land dispute in Oddar Meanchey province last week have fled to the capital for fear of being arrested on incitement charges, they said Monday, as Siem Reap officials confirmed that arrest warrants have been issued for three former residents.
Huy Chuy, the 45-year-old former chief of Kaun Kriel commune’s Bos village, said he was threatened with arrest at gunpoint by local officials a few days before Friday’s eviction.
“After successfully escaping from the authorities, I and other villagers decided to escape overnight to Phnom Penh, believing that the authorities would retaliate or attempt to arrest us again,” he said.
Siem Reap provincial prosecutor Ty Sovinpal confirmed Monday that the court issued warrants for the arrest of three villagers on charges, filed by Forestry Administration officials, of inciting unrest and disrupting the country’s development. “In fact, all villagers should be detained, but I issued an arrest warrant for only three masterminds,” he said.
A total of 214 families are battling Angkor Sugar Company, owned by Lee Yongphat, a senator with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, for rights to the disputed 1,500 hectares. Nearly 100 homes were dismantled and torched by armed police officers during the eviction Friday.
Witness Roeung Hav, 34, said 100 armed officials arrived at the village at around 9am with three tractors and several bulldozers ready to destroy homes. “I begged them to take my property out of my home first, but they ignored me,” she said, weeping.
“They started their bulldozing immediately, making me almost unable to take my children out. After bulldozing my home, they set fire to it, which is very cruel.”
The villagers were then transported to temporary shelter at Kork Khlork pagoda, about 3 kilometres away. There, the officials offered the families food, but only if they agreed to thumbprint documents accepting a piece of land measuring 30 metres by 50 metres and a 1-hectare rice paddy as compensation.
Another witness, 41-year-old Chrin Narin, said: “We were very hungry. The authorities brought sacks of rice, but they would not give it to us. They asked whether we were hungry. Then they told us that we could have rice only if each family gave their thumbprints.”
The number of villagers seeking refuge in the capital swelled to 15 on Monday, as representatives prepared to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene.
Am Sam Ath, an investigator with local rights group Licadho, condemned the eviction. “If the government provides thousands of hectares of commercial land concession to the company, it should also provide social land concessions to residents who need it for their livelihood.”
Pich Sokheurn, governor of Oddar Meanchey, denied any wrongdoing. “We only make villagers who built movable cottages or grabbed state land return to their legal lands,” he said. Lee Yongphat, chairman of Angkor Sugar, could not be reached for comment.