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Villagers taking Hun Sen at his word

Boeung Kak and Lorpeang villagers march near the National Assembly in Phnom Penh
Boeung Kak and Lorpeang villagers march near the National Assembly in Phnom Penh yesterday to pressure the government into resolving their land disputes. Pha Lina

Villagers taking Hun Sen at his word

Rural communities from seven provinces will demand a resolution to their land conflicts in Phnom Penh today – an action being mirrored at provincial halls nationwide following a speech by the prime minister last week that blamed local officials for ongoing disputes.

The arrival of the hundreds of protesters in the capital comes a day after authorities blocked protesters from three provinces who are staying at the Samaki Rainsey pagoda from marching to the National Assembly to submit petitions calling for action on their disputes.

On August 19, Hun Sen admonished low-ranking officials for not reporting land conflicts to him, saying if they did not inform their superiors of ongoing disputes, they could lose their jobs – a message that rights group Adhoc yesterday said had prompted a rush to file complaints across the country.

“We do not trust the authorities, so today we will take the petition again, and we want to give them it with our own hands,” said Ok Sam Ath, a protester who travelled to Phnom Penh last week with a group of villagers from Pailin province’s Stung Sen commune.

Sam Ath was joined by about 60 other protesters yesterday from Pailin, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces. After being blocked by the authorities near the pagoda in Meanchey district, the protesters handed their petitions to the deputy district governor.

Chhut Mao, a villager from Battambang province heading to Phnom Penh yesterday with about 300 others, said the protesters had exhausted all official channels at the provincial level in seeking a resolution to their dispute.

“I must bring my problem to show Prime Minister Hun Sen, because I am afraid that the provincial authorities did not report it to him,” he said.

Chan Sophal, Battambang provincial governor, said he did not know about the plans of the protesters and referred questions to Nguon Ratana, who is in charge of their case. Ratana declined to comment.

As well as criticising local officials in his speech, Hun Sen announced he would set up a committee to review private companies’ land concessions and penalise those found to have broken the agreements.

Chan Soveth, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said that villagers from across the country – including in Kandal, Koh Kong, Preah Sihanouk, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham and Svay Rieng provinces – had filed complaints en masse to their provincial halls yesterday in response to the prime minister’s speech.

“They are all seeking intervention, because the premier announced that he would seek resolutions for them all,” he said. “Now, all the people are converging on Phnom Penh to ask him for help.”

Villagers from three provinces stay at Samaki Rainsey pagoda
Villagers from three provinces stay at Samaki Rainsey pagoda yesterday after authorities blocked them from marching. Vireak Mai

He added that local disputes were often not reached unless Hun Sen personally intervened, because of incompetent or corrupt local officials.

Solidarity between disparate rural protest groups and long-time forced eviction activists in Phnom Penh has been on the rise in recent months, with communities from places such as Kratie province staying at the Boeung Kak Lake residents’ homes and receiving advice on how best to demonstrate.

More than 70 villagers embroiled in a long-running dispute with the KDC company in Kampong Chhnang province – which is owned by the wife of Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem – yesterday marched to the Ministry of Justice and the National Assembly with about 100 activists from Boeung Kak, Thmor Kol and Borei Keila.

Unlike the villagers who were blocked in Meanchey district, the authorities did not stop the protesters from submitting their petition.

The villagers called on authorities to release several people who were imprisoned on allegations of violence after KDC security forces attacked the villagers during a protest earlier this month.

Om Sophy, a community representative from Lorpeang whose husband was jailed following the protest, called for his release.

“We just walked and protested for our own sake, but we were beaten, kicked and looked down on like animals,” she said. “In our case, the thief is free and the shopkeeper has been jailed.”

Sam Prochea Meanith, chief of the cabinet at the Ministry of Justice, promised to forward the petition to the minister.

Phat Pov Seang, a lawyer representing KDC, denied that the company had unlawfully seized the villagers’ land.

“The company bought the land from the people in 2007. But those who are protesting have had disputes since 2006… The company has ample [ownership] documents, but they do not have anything, and they say they have occupied the land since 1982.”

In Preah Vihear province, 13 ethnic Kuoy villagers appeared in court yesterday in connection with ongoing disputes with two Chinese companies – Lan Feng and Rui Feng.

The companies are demanding $360,000 in compensation for alleged criminal damage caused by the villagers to their sugarcane plantations.

The UN envoy for human rights in Cambodia on Saturday wrote in his annual report that he had recorded a significant rise in land disputes in 2014, compared with a period of relative calm leading up to and immediately following last July’s national election.

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