Jarai ethnic minority villagers accusing Keat Kolney of taking their
land say they are increasingly desperate and fear they can't win
A NEW judge has been appointed to rule on the Keat Kolney land-grabbing case in Ratanakkiri, but observers are divided on whether it will result in a fairer hearing for the ethnic minority villagers disputing the controversial 450-hectare land sale.
The appointment of Thor Saron, vice president of the Ratanakkiri provincial court, comes a month after former judge and court president Yar Narin was removed from the case following formal complaints of bias and lack of diligence in his handling of the dispute, which has pitted a small Jarai community in Ratanakkiri's O'Yadao district against Keat Kolney, sister of Minister of Finance Keat Chhon.
"I hope that the new judge will solve our case better than the previous judges," said Sev Twel, a representative from the remote Kong Yu village, whose 45 families are at the centre of the land dispute.
The Kong Yu dispute has been simmering since August 2004, when Keat Kolney claims she purchased the 450 hectares of disputed land from village residents. Although she said that she has documents bearing the villagers' thumbprints, the latter say they only agreed to the sale after commune authorities told them Prime Minister Hun Sen needed the land for disabled army veterans.
Villagers subsequently thumbprinted documents approving the sale, believing they were giving away only 50 hectares of land - not the 450 claimed by Keat Kolney. Lawyers for the villagers also say the sale ignored sections of the 2001 Land Law that provide for the protection of indigenous community land.
Ly Ping, a lawyer from the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), was hopeful about the judge's appointment, but said his past experience with the provincial court had not been good. "We have never had any reply when we have made requests to the previous judges," he said, adding that the court had not acted on the CLEC's requests for access to Forestry Administration maps and for experts to analyse thumbprinted documents submitted as evidence by Keat Kolney.
But incoming judge Thor Saron told the Post he would do his best to bring the Kong Yu case to a fast and satisfactory conclusion. "The case will be solved within the next several months," he said, adding that the importance of the case made it a priority. "This case has many complainants ... and it could be indigenous heritage land, which the law clearly states no one can touch."
But with 270 hectares of the land already cleared and planted with rubber trees, Kong Yu villagers said community members were now being forced to take jobs as day labourers on nearby plantations in order to survive. Romass Meak, 35, said the community - and its traditions - could not survive away from its land. "I need to have my land back as soon as possible," she said. "I and the other villagers have farmed that land for a long time. It belonged to our ancestors."