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Land grab victims appeal for government intervention

Land grab victims appeal for government intervention

Villagers who lost their farms in one of Cambodia's most violent land grabs have traveled to Phnom Penh to seek government intervention in one of the country's longest-standing disputes over property.

Some 459 families in Koh Kong Province's Sre Ambel district say that millionaire Senator Ly Yong Phat has yet to pay them for land lost nearly two years ago when his Koh Kong Sugar Industry and Koh Kong Plantation companies were granted nearly 20,000 hectares in land concessions to cultivate sugarcane.

Nearly half the families have failed to receive the full 100,000 to 150,000 riels ($25 to $37.50) per hectare that was promised, while 265 families have been paid nothing, said villager An Haiya.

“We are here to get back our land, which the company bulldozed,” Haiya told journalists on June 9, speaking at the office of the Community Legal Education Center in Phnom Penh.

“We have protested and filed many complaints, but still there is no solution,” Haiya said.   

Villager protests following the land deal in August 2006 were quelled with bulldozers and armed security, who villagers say fired bullets into the crowd, wounding several.

Guards recruited from local police and military continue to bar villagers from the land, and either shoot or seize livestock that wanders into the company compound, another villager, Teng Kao, said.

“Since the company came, we can not do anything,” Kao said. “We are starving and have nothing with which to survive.”

He said villagers have scrawled their demands along their fences, stating that the company should return their land or provide proper compensation.

Provincial authorities have so far proven unsympathetic to the villagers' complaints. Those charged with trying to mediate the row have accused a small group of agitators of inflaming the situation, and say many of the alleged victims are simply trying to wrestle more compensation from the companies who now own the land.

Koh Kong Deputy Governor Bin Sam Ol, who is charged with settling land disputes in his province, said that provincial authorities had brought village and company representatives together eight times, but they had failed to reach a solution.

“It is difficult for the authorities because the trouble never ends,” Sam Ol said.

“A small group of protesters are behind this problem. Outsiders also come to protest,” he added.

Sam Ol said the number of families complaining about land grabbing continues to rise, no matter how much compensation is paid out by the company.

“Some families have already been paid, but they return to protest again and again, aiming to get more money,” he said.

Koh Kong Sugar Industry Company representative Heng San declined to comment, but he previously told the Post that his company had already resolved the complaints of more than 400 families and only 20 families have not yet been paid.

In a similar development, villagers from northwestern Cambodia's Oddar Meanchey province embroiled in a land dispute with another Yong Phat-owned company have also sent a representative to Phnom Penh. In that case, a village representative said that an unnamed enterprise had leveled nearly 7,600 hectares of land outside the boundaries of its sugarcane plantation concession in Samroang district.

“We came here asking to get our land back,” said Vey Sarin, adding that he was speaking for 256 families.

“Most of the farmers are homeless, and others do not have land for farming,” he said.  

Am Sam Ath, a human rights monitor with the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said that local authorities fear intervening in Yong Phat's business, dragging out the disputes.

“If they were willing to solve the problem, it could be over in about a month,” Sam Ath said.

"But the villagers in Samroang will have the same problems as the villagers in Sre Ambel.”

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