Seven villagers from Preah Vihear travelled to Phnom Penh to deliver a petition on Friday asking the government to intervene in a dispute involving gold mining company Delcom, with local authorities turning up to question the wife of one of those delivering the petition shortly after the contingent left.
In the petition, delivered to the Ministry of Land Management, the villagers accuse Trapaing Tuntem Village Chief Uk Nga of forcing them to sign a contract with a Delcom representative in July of 2016. The villagers allege that authorities and Delcom lied to them by saying they would get land titles if they signed the contract. However, the villagers claim the contract says they are “living on the company’s land”.
“Because we are poor and illiterate and did not understand the meaning in the contract, and there was intimidation from commune authorities as well,” the petition reads.
Pong Sengching said people began to occupy the area between 1997 and 2011, but Delcom expanded in 2015, grabbing their land. “We did not read [the contract] clearly, so [we] asked to cancel it,” he said.
Nga, the village chief, denied authorities lied or forced the villagers to thumbprint the contract with Delcom. He said the contract states the villagers are not allowed to grab the company’s land, and vice versa. “I read the document for them to avoid them saying that the investing company grabbed their land, so I agreed with the commune chief to make the contract over the land they control,” he said.
Neither villagers nor authorities were able to provide a copy of the contract yesterday.
It remains unclear who is behind Delcom, but the area, which consists of three different gold mining sites, is being guarded by soldiers, which the Ministry of Defence has said it does not allow. Company representative Lor An, who refused to identify who owns the company, claimed Delcom signed a contract with 55 families – who he said moved into the area after 2013 and weren’t issued a land title from the government – to allow them to farm.
Yos Monirath, spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said he was unaware of the petition, but that Delcom was licensed and no villagers own Delcom’s land. He declined to comment further yesterday.
Meanwhile, Sou Se, wife of Sengching, who left for the capital on Thursday, said six officials from Romtom commune, Rovieng district police and Commune Chief Prak Phorn went to her home to ask her why her husband had gone to Phnom Penh. “They came to my home three times on Thursday and I told them that my husband went to get medicines for me,” she said.
Say Det, Rovieng district police chief, maintained the interrogation was part of the police’s technical work. He said if the villagers had any problems, they should have talked to the local authorities first before going to the national level.
Environmentalist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson – who has advocated for those affected by Delcom – said actions by local authorities were “to ensure that local communities feel scared of talking to the media, to civil society, and even to relevant government officials”.
Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro