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Gov't halts land clearing after grenade attack

Gov't halts land clearing after grenade attack

The Ministry of Interior has ordered the Pheapimex company to stop work on its massive

land concession in Pursat after a hand grenade injured eight protestors and local

activists fled to Phnom Penh fearing further persecution.

Clearing for the proposed eucalyptus paper pulp plantation has been halted until

the Ansa Chambok commune council can study how the development will affect local

people and discuss changing the boundaries of the concession site.

The order came after a meeting between Nouth Saan, Secretary of State at the Minister

of Interior, Ung Samy, governor of Pursat, and a first deputy governor of Kampong

Chhnang on November 17, said Saan.

"I gave instructions to the governors of Pursat and Kampong Chnang to survey

the impact on the villagers and their farming," he said.

Saan said that provincial police had identified two male suspects in the grenade

attack, but would conduct a thorough investigation before arresting them.

At 12:45am on November 13, a hand grenade exploded about five meters from a group

of people sleeping near the commune council office about10 kilometers from the concession

site.

Around 800 people, mostly farmers, had been demonstrating against development of

a forested area where locals traditionally gather wild food when rice supplies run

low.

"We were sleeping near the police, but there were no police to take measures

immediately after the attack," said Um Hout, 60, a leader of the peaceful protest.

Six people were taken to hospital in Phnom Penh with moderate to serious injuries

but were expected to be discharged soon, said human rights group Licadho. Two others

were slightly wounded in the blast.

Initial media reports quoted police blaming protestors for the attack, saying they

were trying to bring the Pheapimex company into disrepute, but Kong Sophara, chief

of provincial police in Pursat, said police would not arrest the protestors as suspects.

Two of the protest leaders-Um Hout and Lek Thoung, 71-traveled to Phnom Penh on November

16 after rumors emerged of threats to assassinate them.

Hout said that the threat was leaked to protestors to intimidate the leaders of the

demonstration, saying there would be no obstacle for doing business after they were

killed.

The authenticity or source of the threat could not be confirmed by the Post.

However, Kek Galabru, president of human rights group Licadho, said they had received

reports that four policemen visited the home of Hout and were worried about the safety

of the men.

The day after the grenade blast, 200 people in a convoy of 16 trucks set off for

Pursat town to see the governor but were stopped by police, who parked a jeep across

National Route 5.

Two hours later, with several hundred vehicles backed up along the road, the police

removed their jeep and blamed the traffic chaos on protestors, ordering them to disperse.

Galabru said further protests were planned to stop the company.

The two Pheapimex concessions are the largest awarded by the government, with adjoining

plots covering 315,028 hectares across Pursat and Kampong Chhnang provinces. The

legal limit for economic concessions is now 10,000 hectares.

Prime Minister Hun Sen presided over the signing ceremony for the deal on December

25, 2000.

Four Chinese workers were found on the development site, managing seven sawmills

and two bulldozers, said Chan Soveth, an investigator for local human rights NGO

Adhoc.

The government asked Pheapimex to remove the bulldozers from the site, but the company

representative requested they remain, said Nouth Saan, Secretary of State at the

Ministry of Interior.

Pheapimex Co could not be contacted by the Post.

The violence in Pursat highlighted a damning report on land concessions for economic

use, released this month by Peter Leuprecht, special representative to the United

Nations Secretary General on human rights in Cambodia.

The study concluded that the government's policies are wrong and said he was shocked

at the human rights violations concessionaires have caused.

Leuprecht condemned the use of violence in Pursat and urged police to conduct a "serious"

investigation

"I am following very closely what's happening in Pursat [involving] Pheapimex,

I think it's just another illustration of the seriousness of the problem, and that

more and more the people affected are resisting [by] launching protests, which I

personally find understandable," Leuprecht told a press conference on November

14.

He called for economic land concessions to be "reconsidered" and alternatives

pursued.

On October 18, Hun Sen announced a moratorium on land concessions for economic use,

but it is unclear whether this applies only to new contracts or those already operating.

In total, the government has signed 26 contracts with companies to develop plantations

of acacia, eucalyptus, palm oil, cassava, rubber and cashews, said the report.

But behind the pretense of legitimate business operations, illegal logging was the

main activity of the concessionaires, Leuprecht said on November 14.

"They are contributing to a plundering of Cambodia's natural resources,"

said Leuprecht.

Leuprecht said there were small signs the government was starting to back down on

land concessions for economic use.

The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries assured him that the 18,300 hectare

contract with Green Rich company in Koh Kong will not be granted, and the 199,999

hectares originally granted to Wuzhishan LS Group for pine trees would be reduced

to 10,000 hectares.

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