Villagers in Kandal province alleged yesterday that officials had “tricked” them into thumb-printing a petition supporting tycoon Try Pheap’s claim that he is not involved in illegal logging and endorsing his defamation suit against two villagers.
In a scathing report released last Wednesday, the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force accused Pheap of widespread logging and land grabbing.
Two days later, two villagers from Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district who were quoted in the report were summonsed to court over defamation complaints Pheap had filed.
Since then, villagers said yesterday, commune and village chiefs in the same district have been pressuring them to ink petitions in support of the tycoon.
Sok Ny, 43, said he was one of many in Tbeng commune to thumb-print a petition at his village chief’s home this week.
He thought he had been inking a document in support of a lending initiative set up by an NGO, he said.
“After I thumb-printed it, they said I had supported Try Pheap, who was being accused of illegal logging and being Vietnamese,” Ny said. “If I had known it, I would not have done this – but it’s too late now.”
Mev By, 77, said his village chief had asked him to thumb-print a document mentioning Pheap, but refused to let him see exactly what it said.
“I did not thumb-print anything, because they did not allow me to look,” he said. “What I say depends on what I know.”
Un Sothea, chief of Tbeng commune, said all five villages in the commune had been asked to ink the petition in support of Pheap, but he was unsure how many people had done so. “We have asked people to thumb-print and confirm that [the accused villagers] have defamed tycoon Try Pheap. I do not dare say more than this,” he said.
Sen San, one of the villagers being sued, said that on Monday and yesterday officials had persuaded visitors to ink the petition, promising payments of 10,000 riel (about $2.50) per person.
“Some people who know nothing about [Pheap’s activities] gave their thumbprints, but some didn’t,” he said. “Some of those who did told me that if they knew it would hurt me they wouldn’t have done it.”
San and fellow villager Ouk Sambo – who both live near one of Pheap’s homes – are scheduled to appear in the provincial court on Friday for questioning.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said it was disappointing the pair was being sued, as people should have the right to speak their minds. “[CHRTF] is just showing that the company is exploiting their property, but the [villagers] are now being sued. Try Pheap should also think about human rights.”
CHRTF’s report claims that 1,445 families have been evicted from their homes during Pheap’s acquisition of about 68,088 hectares since 2010. It is also alleged that Pheap’s companies log in economic land concessions – its own and those granted to other companies – in every province in the country.
Under Cambodian law, an individual can own only 10,000 hectares of economic land concessions.
Pheap could not be reached for comment yesterday.