Two representatives of a farming community in Svay Rieng province have been fined a total of $1,000 by district officials for gathering protests earlier this week as part of a land dispute centered on a canal restoration project.
On Monday, about 120 families with claims to roughly 99 hectares of farmland affected by the project protested against provincial authorities who the villagers say are forcing them to accept a low price for land compensation to make way for the restoration. In response, authorities have accused the protestors’ representatives of violating Ministry of Health measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and fined them $500 each.
The fines are just the latest development in a long-running conflict at the Kampong Chrey canal project, which is under management of the Ministry of Water Resources. Local community members said the expansion and rehabilitation of the canal started in 2009 but has been delayed due to farmers’ protests. The planned restoration could impact land across two communes in Svay Chrum district.
In a bill issued by provincial administration and seen by CamboJA, farmers In Soth, who is president of the Samaki Chek Meas Association, and Yos Sophorn are ordered to pay fines of $500 each for the violation of administrative measures of the Law on the Prevention of COVID-19.
The representatives say they must pay the fines or else face a court case. Human rights defenders have described the official response as a threat to the protestors and a restriction of freedom of expression.
Soth told CamboJA that she and Sophorn were summoned Wednesday by authorities who accused them of incitement and illegal gathering without wearing a mask and keeping social distance.
“We were called to read the announcement of the Ministry of Health’s measures on preventing COVID-19 and, after reading, they forced me to thumbprint and agree to pay the fine within one month,” Soth explained.
“It is very unfair for me as a citizen, they take my land and now fine me,” she added.
Sophorn said authorities have not solved the issue for affected people, but instead used the pretext of COVID to threaten them.
“[They] accused us of incitement for posting on social media related to people protesting and demanding fair compensation,” she said.
Hem Sarith, Svay Chrum district governor, told CamboJA that people continued to gather on Tuesday, violating the health measure that was already disseminated to the people in the community.
“The fine is applied according to the law on preventing COVID-19,” he said. “They need to pay within 30 days, and if they refuse, authorities will file a complaint to the court based on the law.”
According to Sarith, those who violate the administrative measure could be fined between $250-500 based on article 10 of the Law on the Prevention of COVID-19.
The district governor said people can continue making their demands by submitting a petition to authorities without protesting.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho, said land issues occur almost everywhere in the country and are often solved inappropriately.
“This measure is not appropriate and should not be implemented. The authorities should deal with the affected people,” Sam Ath said. “The fines are an additional burden on farmers, who have been affected by the COVID-19.”
Sam Ath said the assessment of land compensation should be made through a proper evaluation committee. Speaking directly to the fines levied against the community representatives, he said the development will further erode people’s trust in the authorities.
“In this image, the authorities are using an administrative measure of the COVID law, but in general, it is more about threatening,” Sam Ath said.