In defiance of an order by Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Khoun Sreng, more than 100 people protested outside the offices of Equitable Cambodia (EC) yesterday.
They held signs denouncing the NGO, as community representatives inside submitted a letter withdrawing their consent for the group to represent them in a land dispute with one of Cambodia’s most powerful tycoons, Ly Yong Phat.
EC began representing Kampong Speu families displaced by economic land concessions housing Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company plantations in 2010, shortly after the concessions were granted.
However, on May 27 this year, a crowd formed outside EC’s Phnom Penh office demanding that 216 families be taken off the NGO’s client list. It later transpired their presence was a condition for the majority to receive $500 compensation per family.
EC executive director Eang Vuthy noted at the time that of the 216, only 61 had been registered with EC.
More evictees arrived on EC’s doorstep yesterday, despite Sreng’s ruling the previous afternoon that only 10 representatives could attend, with the rest to gather at Freedom Park.
As they disembarked from a fleet of minivans, many were handed signs bearing slogans: “Stop your incitement in our community” and “EC is no longer our representative”.
Footage obtained by the Post showed multiple sign bearers who seemed unaware of what their signs said.
One is asked whether they were there to criticise the NGO. “No, I didn’t come here for that,” he said, having moments earlier said, “I don’t know [why I’m here].”
But community representative Phal Vannak said they were withdrawing their complaints to make way for company development projects, adding that EC had “provoked some villagers to demand more compensation”.
An EC statement released yesterday acknowledged community members’ right to withdraw their proxy, but resolved to continue supporting community members that requested help.
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) executive director Chak Sopheap described yesterday’s gathering as “highly unusual”. She added that while CCHR respects the community’s decision and their right to freely assemble, “we sincerely hope for the community’s sake that this was a free and informed decision”.
Licadho deputy director of advocacy Naly Pilorge said it was clear that most villagers “did not really understand why or what they were protesting”, adding that the gathering seemed to be led by individuals with close ties to Phnom Penh Sugar.
Independent analyst Billy Tai said it was “entirely likely they [the villagers] would be mobilised by an interest group that is against EC”. He added that it would “seem obvious that the interest group in this case would be Phnom Penh Sugar, or at least funded by Phnom Penh Sugar”.
Company director Seng Nhak did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After the visit to EC, a petition was delivered to the EU Embassy asking that it no longer involve itself in the dispute.
A statement from EU Ambassador George Edgar yesterday said the EU had never been involved.