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Villagers provide fresh evidence in 14-year dispute

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Villagers from Lor Peang bring fresh evidence to the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh on Thursday, hoping to solve a 14-year land dispute. Heng Chivoan

Villagers provide fresh evidence in 14-year dispute

Forty-five families in Kampong Chhnang province on Thursday attended the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to submit additional evidence with regard to a 14-year-long land dispute with KDC International.

The villagers, from Kampong Tralach district’s Lor Peang village, submitted evidence confirming to the court that the families never received proper compensation from the company, according to community representative Im Sophy.

Sophy stated that in April 2014, KDC called many of the illiterate villagers among the group to provide a thumbprint to receive compensation, but failed to read them the terms of the agreement.

In the agreement, the company had added a clause stating that the money was a gift for New Year’s celebrations and not compensation for the land dispute. Once realising the problem in June 2014, villagers filed a complaint to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court requesting to cancel the compensation agreement.

Sophy said the villagers were coerced into accepting the agreement, while the company intentionally hid the full terms of the agreement from the literate villagers.

“Villagers who accepted the policy were those who were illiterate, and they were called to go one by one and were pressured to accept the money. The company did not give [a copy of] the agreement to the villagers."

“The agreement was kept by the company alone and when we went to ask the district authorities, they answered that there was no such document. The document was prepared to resolve the dispute with villagers, but only the company kept the document and we did not get a copy.

“What did they prepare it for? We have filed a complaint to the court to cancel the agreement because we did not know what they wrote within it,” she said.

The submission of additional evidence came after Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Sam Bunpov issued an order on January 18 to two Lor Peang villagers to provide evidence within three weeks of their claims that would invalidate the agreement.

Keo Vannak, a Lor Peang villager who said she had 3.5ha before the dispute began in 2005, added that the provincial authorities set up a joint committee to resolve the dispute and organised discussions at the commune hall.

But Vannak claimed that when 33 families went to the commune hall in April 2014, there was no discussion of the land dispute, but instead KDC owner Chea Kheng was there and told the families to accept the compensation as they were not the real landowners.

“Chea Kheng called each villager to come in. Some were persuaded and some were threatened. They persuaded us, saying things like: ‘Aunt! You are old, you should take this money. You don’t have land and this money should be taken for the New Year’s celebration."

“It turns out that this money was only given for the New Year celebrations and it was not the money for resolving the land dispute. I filed a complaint to deny this because [Chea Kheng] did not talk about the land with me,” she said.

In response, Kheng’s lawyer Phat Pov Seang told The Post on Thursday that KDC owns 500ha in the Lor Peang area, which it bought in 2007 from the real landowners who have possessed the land title since 1997 and were able to present ownership documents.

He said Chea Sophara, Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, had already recognised the company’s land ownership.

“When he had just become the Minister of Land Management, Chea Sophara certified that the land title is valid, but still when there is a dispute people ask whether the certificate is proper or not?” Pov Seang said, adding that Kheng only originally offered a resolution as a gesture of goodwill, despite knowing the villagers were not the real landowners.

Pov Seang continued that the villagers promised to withdraw their complaint when they accepted the agreement, which was done in front of witnesses including provincial officers, civil society organisations and journalists.

Rights group Adhoc’s coordinator in Kampong Chhnang province, Sam Chankea, claimed that the villagers were the rightful owners of the land and that authorities “took the villagers’ land to sell to the company” in 2005.

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