Some 290 protesters from Koh Kong province who went to the Ministry of Land Management on Tuesday morning returned home after the minister promised to find a solution to their land dispute with Koh Kong Plantation and Koh Kong Sugar Industry Co Ltd.
The villagers gained access to the ministry even though local authorities had tried to prevent them from doing so, they said.
Choem Sreythoun, from Koh Kong’s Sre Ambel district who has five hectares in the province, said the minister, Chea Sophara, promised to put an end to their dispute.
She said Sophara had promised to send a group of officials to the province on Thursday to measure land and provide compensation.
“The way he talked makes me content. He said he wants to finish this dispute before the election,” Sreythoun said.
“Based on his promise, I feel 90 percent positive. If he does not do as he has said, we will return and continue protesting in front of the ministry.”
Many of the protesters were forced to walk for hours to reach the ministry after the vehicles they were travelling in were stopped by police before they reached the capital.
The villagers say they left home at 2am on Monday and arrived in Phnom Penh at 8:30pm the same day.
“We walked around 60km. They didn’t allow us to continue travelling in our vehicles and kept them where we were stopped.
“We could neither go back nor forwards. We have suffered greatly and even slept at a pagoda”, Sreythoun said.
Ith Sok, 33, was carrying her one-year-old son when protesting to be legally assured of her two hectares, which she claimed to have occupied since 1995. She said the company grabbed her land in 2006.
Sok says she had to bring her son along with her as she had nobody to look after him in her absence.
“It is my fourth time coming to protest in Phnom Penh. This is the first time they blocked our vehicles from reaching the capital.
“They told us to wait for a resolution in the province and told us to go back, but we resisted and began walking,” Sok said.
Another protester, Morch Sam, 45, from Koh Kong’s Botum Sakor district, says he had occupied his land since 1997, growing bananas and mangoes, but the company allegedly took it from him in 2006.
“We walked in a group for hours. Before, my wife went to protest but now I have come because I see the situation is very tense.
“It is unbelievable that Khmers are hurting Khmers, not allowing us to drive our vehicles and forcing us to walk to Phnom Penh,” he said.
Deputy Koh Kong Governor Orn Pheareak, who appeared at the protest, urged the villagers to return to their homes. “I beg you, please return. I believe a solution will come soon,” he said.
He said provincial authorities will increase efforts and speed up measurement activities to divide land for the people in cooperation with the ministry.
Pheareak also claimed they did not block their vehicles en route to Phnom Penh, but rather they were only told by authorities to return to the province.
“If they wished to walk, how could we have stopped them? We don’t want them to go to Phnom Penh because it could impact public order – sitting at the roadside, getting hit by cars and killed, who would be responsible for that?” he asked.
Rights group Adhoc spoksman Soeng Sen Karuna said that at the moment, the protesters are waiting on the minister’s pledge to find a solution for them. However, it must be delivered soon.
“Such a solution should not take lot of time. When they take a lot of time, it really affects people’s economic situation.
“And with such a blocking of the protesters, it is obviously not a solution. They should allow the villagers to deliver the petition rather than block them,” he said.