A joint force of nearly 40 law enforcement officials in Preah Vihear’s Brame commune last Friday retrieved two bulldozers seized from Chinese sugar company Rui Feng three years ago by ethnic Kuoy villagers.
The bulldozers’ sudden repossession came nearly a month after the ruling Cambodian People’s Party unseated the incumbent opposition party in June’s commune elections. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s top candidate in the commune, 27-year-old political newcomer Khum Rany, had generated enthusiasm among locals with campaign promises to end Rui Feng land grabs in Brame.
Rany’s CPP counterpart, former provincial police officer Thean Heng, 58, nevertheless defeated her by 232 votes, having made peaceful coexistence with Rui Feng central to his campaign. Neither Heng nor Rui Feng could be reached for comment.
Commandeered by nearly 200 villagers in December 2014 to prevent the company from clearing their farmland, the two bulldozers – stationed for almost three years in front of the then-CNRP occupied Brame commune hall – embodied the land dispute that defined the commune for much of the past decade.
In 2010, the Cambodian government granted Rui Feng and its four subsidiaries economic land concessions (ELCs) in Preah Vihear, stretching across 40,000 hectares of land.
The conflict between ethnic Kuoy villagers and the company began in 2012, when Rui Feng started clearing land the villagers claimed as their own. In response, Kuoy villagers began a concerted direct-action campaign to halt company land grabs, squatting on vulnerable farmland, putting themselves in the way of bulldozers and, in 2014, confiscating the company’s machinery.
On Thursday afternoon, a joint force of Military Police and provincial police officials led by a Preah Vihear Provincial Court prosecutor rekindled efforts to reclaim the two bulldozers for Rui Feng. A previous attempt immediately after the villagers’ seizure of the vehicles in 2014 was aborted after villagers threatened to torch the vehicles with gasoline.
Brame community representative Sing Saing, 62, said that the authorities encircled the bulldozers on Friday afternoon, preventing villagers from approaching them and warning them not to call their neighbours for help.
“Nearly 40 forces came secretly to take [the bulldozers], so we could not stop them,” she said, adding that the officials threatened to arrest villagers who protested.
Saing said she believed Brame’s election of a CPP commune chief friendly to Rui Feng emboldened provincial authorities to retake the bulldozers. “Because the CPP won the commune election, they dared to come and take them,” Saing said. “They rely on their power and no one is going to do anything to them, so they can take [the bulldozers] whenever they want to.”
While authorities promised to station the vehicles at the provincial court, Saing said, only one vehicle was seen there, while the other was spotted on Rui Feng company property. Community members, she said, may protest at the provincial court if both vehicles are not impounded as promised.
“I am angry and disappointed since we put a lot of effort into bringing those vehicles [to the commune hall], but they just used force to take them back,” said Rany, the unsuccessful opposition candidate, whose family lost 5 hectares of rice fields to Rui Feng in 2013. “If I had won the election, they could [not] take them away.”
Deputy prosecutor and provincial court spokeswoman Phy Siphorng, one of two court officials leading Friday’s repossession, said that Kuy Yoeung, Rui Feng’s administrative director, filed a complaint to the provincial court in 2015 demanding the vehicles’ return to their owner, a man named Im Ly. Siphorng said the court returned both bulldozers to Ly, adding that the recent elections had no bearing on the enforcement of laws.