POLICE in Kandal province said Monday that they had released 11 villagers who were arrested Sunday after a protest related to a land dispute with a private company. Meanwhile, farmers who have accused the company of making unfounded claims to their rice fields staged two more demonstrations in Kandal Stung district.
Eav Chamreun, the Kandal provincial police chief, said four of the 11 protesters detained after Sunday’s protest – during which 400 villagers blocked off a section of National Road 2 – had been released early Sunday evening after thumbprinting documents stating they would not protest again, and that the other seven had been released Sunday night.
“We asked them to make a contract saying they would not do this again, and accepting the blame for the protest,” he said.
“If they do this again, we will arrest them.”
Representatives of the villagers have said they decided to protest after three excavators and three bulldozers belonging to the Heng Development Company appeared on Friday near a 200-hectare section of disputed land in Prek Sleng commune.
Company representative So Sokhim said Monday that it had purchased the land from the villagers in 1995 and 1996 for a rate of US$450 per hectare, but the villagers have said they never sold it.
So Sokhim said she did not believe all of the protesters lived on the land.
“The villagers who protest recently, they don’t live in that area,” she said. “They don’t even know clearly where the land is.”
On Monday, 300 villagers staged a protest near the disputed land, and others delivered a petition with 100 thumbprints to the office of commune chief Meas Sokhen demanding that the dispute be resolved in their favour. The group delivering the petition also staged a demonstration after discovering that no commune officials were present.
Choie Sobin, the governor of Kandal Stung district, said he did not know whether officials would be able to help the villagers, who say they have been cultivating the land since the mid-1980s, because they lack documentation.
“They have nothing to show to the authorities,” he said.
“I have tried to explain to them that according to the law the company has the land title to control that land, so they should stop their protest. It is not good.”
Ouch Leng, land programme officer for the rights group Adhoc, said that, at the very least, the company’s claim to the land should be clearly explained to the villagers. He criticised commune officials for declining to meet with the protesters on Monday.
“The commune chief should not just close the office and run away without talking to the villagers. They should come to explain to the villagers about that land,” he said.