BESIEGED villagers locked in a bitter land feud were granted an 11th-hour reprieve from their looming eviction on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to reach a peaceful resolution.
Hundreds of families from Kraya commune in Kampong Thom’s Santuk district braced for violence after a brutal clash with military police last week left several vehicles incinerated, two people hospitalised, seven arrested and an entire community cordoned off from the outside world.
Instead, the eviction date was postponed by authorities for seven days in the hope of negotiating a nonviolent conclusion.
“We did not stop the evicion. We postponed it in order to give villagers a chance to organise representatives for negotiating a peaceful resolution,” said Kampong Thom provincial Governor Chhun Chhorn. “We don’t want to use violence to resolve this problem. We need to find a friendly resolution that complies with the law.”
Villagers, however, were sceptical – convinced the delay would lead to more residents being rounded up and arrested by police. Muong Saroeun, 45, said the seven-day grace period was a ploy. “Their one-week delay doesn’t mean that they want to help us. They just want to arrest the people in this area who burned their property,” she said.
“In the meantime, we are living like frogs in a hole. They spread out the soldiers to block our road. We cannot go out from our village. If we go out, they will arrest us. We will die if they delay the eviction one more week because we have no food. Vendors may come inside our village, but the fact remains that if we can’t go out to sell, we don’t have money to buy.”
Seven villagers have so far been arrested for the destruction of private property after the November 16 riot in which upwards of 200 residents set fire to four excavators owned by a Vietnamese rubber firm, Tin Bean, along with several police motorcycles. Tin Bean was awarded the disputed 8,000-hectare plot in a concession in 2007, but the villagers say they have lived on the land since 2004. Arrest warrants for a further 13 people have also been issued, villagers said.
Prak Many, 68, questioned the delay. “One week is long enough for them to arrest the 20 people they want,” she said. “They did not delay the eviction for our benefit. We just want to live in our village, but they try to arrest us.”
“We cannot move to a new location because we’ve already planted trees that have begun to bear fruit, like mangoes, jackfruit, bananas. We have cassava farms. We are poor, so when we go to a new location and leave all this behind, it will make us poorer.”
The families have repeatedly rejected offers of compensation, insisting the plots on offer are too small or in an unsuitable location. Sun Sithan, 39, said: “We still refuse to move to the new location because it’s a flood area. We cannot grow cassava there to support ourselves.
“Nobody dared stay at home today because they were afraid [the authorities] would arrest them and burn down their house. They are feeding us rumours that they will do these things. Do they think we are human or do they think we are wild animals?”
Santuk district Governor Pich Sophea insisted that despite the delay, eviction plans were on track. “We need to respect our government’s decision, so we will relocate [the villagers] to a new location in Thmor Samleang commune, about 7 kilometres from their village,” he said.
“People did not talk to us about what they wanted, but our policy provides every family with a 20-metre-by-40- metre plot, plus 1 hectare of rice field.”