A FARMER was arrested and briefly detained by military police in Kampong Speu province on Wednesday after trying in vain to stop employees of the Phnom Penh Sugar Company from clearing his land, marking the third arrest in a controversial land fight.
Rights workers condemned the action as an example of Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat, who owns the company, leveraging the military against villagers to further his business interests.
Around half a dozen military police officers arrested Sruon Kimseng, 43, near his home in Thpong district’s Omlaing commune at around 11am, witnesses said.
His wife, Nuon Sarim, said he had been protesting an attempt by the Phnom Penh Sugar Company to clear his land with a bulldozer.
Sruon Kimseng was held until 2pm at the company’s office, and released only after around 50 villagers gathered outside to protest, she said.
Nuon Sarim said a bulldozer had cleared a 200-metre-wide swathe of land in front of their house, and that he had only been trying to protect it.
“The reason my husband spoke to the company’s staff was just to ask how much more land they wanted to clear and ask them to spare our house,” she said.
So Sok, a villager who took part in the ensuing protest, said the arrest was evidence that local authorities were clearly biased in favour of the company.
“Apparently the company has the right to do anything they want, but what about us villagers? Do we have no right to protect our land?” he said.
A total of 11 villages in Omlaing commune – home to more than 2,000 families – have been affected by a 9,000-hectare concession granted to the Phnom Penh Sugar Company.
On March 24, two other men from Omlaing commune were arrested and later released in connection with the dispute.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with the rights group Licadho, said Ly Yong Phat has a history of using intimidation to carry out controversial development projects.
“This is one more clear example of Ly Yong Phat’s company misusing armed forces for his private interests,” he said.
Noting that officials had previously committed to attempting to resolve the dispute, he said, “The authorities need to be clear about whether they truly want to negotiate or whether their announcement of negotiations was just a smokescreen.”
John Coughlan, a legal adviser for the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the dispute in Omlaing was an example “of a state apparatus – whether that be the courts, or on this occasion the military police – being used to further private business interests”.
Ly Yong Phat has come under harsh scrutiny for his partnership with Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Battalion 313, which he is supporting financially under a system – formalised in February – that establishes partnerships between military units, government offices and private companies.
In October of last year, another of the senator’s companies was involved in a violent eviction in Oddar Meanchey province, during which the homes of 100 families were torched and bulldozed by about 150 police, military police and contract workers.
Chhean Kimsuon, a Phnom Penh Sugar Company representative, on Wednesday denied that the arrest had anything to do with the company.
“It was a personal problem between some villagers,” she said.
“Our company’s soldiers saw that this man was having an argument, so we detained him in our office. We asked the reason for the argument and then released him, but it did not involve our company,” she said.
The company has already cleared more than 2,000 hectares and plans to plant sugarcane on about 3,000 hectares this year, she added.
Despite the formalised military-government-private sector patronage system, Chhum Socheat, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said
Wednesday that he was unaware that RCAF soldiers were protecting land owned by the Phnom Penh Sugar Company. “I cannot believe that there
are a lot of soldiers protecting that company. I will have to check on this issue,” he said.
Thpong district governor Tuon Song declined to comment on Wednesday.
Hab Dam, the chief of Omlaing commune, said she was unaware of Wednesday’s arrest.