Farmers involved in a land dispute along a canal restoration project in Svay Rieng province are beginning to agree to compensation from authorities after police last week arrested two community representatives.
Yous Sophorn and En Soth, representatives from the Samaki Chek Meas community in Svay Chrum district, were summoned on Friday for arrest by provincial police and sent on Saturday to pre-trial detention on charges of disobeying administrative measures set by law to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
Both have been accused of as-yet unknown violations likely related to a protest they’d helped organize in early August to demonstrate against compensation offered by authorities to settle the dispute in Svay Chrum district. For their roles in the event, Sophorn and Soth were fined $500 each not long after. These latest charges are in addition to that earlier punishment.
Tep Phalla, spokesman for the Svay Rieng provincial court, confirmed the two farmer representatives have been charged with obstructing the implementation of administrative measures to prevent the spread of COVID.
“As for the previous violation, they were already fined [$500 each] for disobeying administrative measures, but later, both representatives committed another violation,” he said, though he did not tell CamboJA what the new violation was. “I do not know, wait to ask the court because the court is the decision maker, and I cannot answer.”
On August 2, more than 100 families with claims to roughly 99 hectares of farmland affected by the canal project demonstrated against provincial authorities who the villagers say are forcing them to accept a low compensation rate for their land to make way for the canal restoration. Officials say the land in question is already state-owned and that compensation is only for lost crops, not the land itself. Four days after the demonstration, 60 families connected to the event were placed in 21-day quarantines after two villagers tested positive for COVID-19, leading some locals to allege officials are using health measures to force a resolution of the land dispute.
On Samay, a farmer in Chek village, one of two villages involved in the dispute, agreed to accept the compensation from authorities and said that more people in the village have done the same. Samay said she was motivated both by concerns for Sophorn and Soth, but also fears the offered money is the best deal that officials will offer.
“I accept because the authorities can commute the sentences of the two representatives and if [villagers] do not take compensation now, the authorities will give them nothing,” Samay said.
Other farmers interviewed by CamboJA in Thnong village, the second affected by the canal project, said they are agreeing to accept the compensation because authorities have forced them to do so, warning the villagers would otherwise leave with nothing.
Thnong village farmer Prech Samon is set to meet with commune authorities on Tuesday afternoon but is not optimistic about how it will go.
“I’m worried that tomorrow [Tuesday] they will force me to accept the compensation of 900 riel per square meter,” Salmon said. “With this price, I will not be able to buy land elsewhere and if we do not agree, the authorities will arrest us.”
Pol Seth, another farmer from Thnong village, said that a day after the two community representatives were arrested, authorities pointed to the criminal case as motivation to sign a compensation deal with a thumbprint.
“Authorities asked people to give their thumbprint to accept the compensation, saying ‘Your representatives have been arrested and imprisoned so what are you waiting for?’” Seth said.
Nuon Saroth, a farmer in Thnong village, said the compensation provided by the authorities was not suitable for subsistence and could not be used to buy land elsewhere. Saroth had previously asked for $3 per square meter. She told CamboJA that if she could get that much, she could not give her thumbprint to accept a deal — however, she’s now concerned that compensation may be withheld from other farmers if she decides to hold out.
Chheu Teal commune chief Nong Sony said 36 families living in Chek village have received compensation so far, with the remaining 20 families still holding out. Sony said the authorities have never forced them to accept a deal.
“They volunteer to accept this compensation,” Sony said. “[There is] no coercion, if they do not agree, they can go to protest.”
Chek Sary, chief of Svay Thom commune where the Thnong village families live, also said there was no compulsion for any citizen to accept compensation.
“I have never threatened any people. If they accept it or not, it is their business. I have no right,” Mony said.
The legal actions against Sophorn and Soth indicate that, while refusing the compensation may still be an option, protesting against it is not. The pair were first targeted after gathering protests to oppose the government offer and were ordered to pay fines within a month, lest they face additional legal measures.
Those charged with violations of the recently passed COVID law may, under articles 10 and 11, be sentenced with as many as five years in prison and fined up to 20 million riel, or about $5,000.
UN experts in April raised concerns about the “excessive prison sentences and fines” prescribed by the Law on Preventive Measures Against the Spread of COVID-19 and other Severe and Dangerous Contagious Diseases, as the law is officially known. The legislation was hastily passed and enacted without public consultations in March 2021.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager of the rights group Licadho, said the arrests of Sophorn and Soth were seen as a message to intimidate other land communities.
“It’s a threat to intimidate the community rather than find a solution to the land issue for them. And this detention will not be able to end this land issue if the relevant authorities do not expedite the resolution to end the crisis,” he said.
Sam Ath said all parties should find a way to address the issue peacefully rather than with threats and arrests.