Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court summoned three land activists for questioning over accusations of attempted murder and intentional damage after the group allegedly used knives to damage fishing nets in Kampong Tralach district’s Taches commune. The activists maintain part of the lake, Boeng Pur, is a protected site, though local authorities disagree.
According to the court summons, signed by provincial court deputy prosecutor Long Sitha, Oum Sophy, Snguon Nhoeun, and Un Mon are to appear for questioning on September 15 related to a complaint filed by Pok Sotorn on April 20, 2021. The summons was issued at the end of last month and received by the activists Monday.
Oum Sophy, 42, a longtime land activist, told CamboJA that she, her husband Nhoeun, and Mon, were accused by a man who her group has repeatedly tried to bar from fishing in what they say is a protected area. But she denied that they used any violence against him.
“I do not know what’s our activity that [Pok Sotorn] sued us for because we do not have any activities or purpose to do a crime like his complaint,” said Sophy.
Sophy said that in January she seized his fishing nets. A month later, she said, the fisherman was part of a group that set fire to a cottage used by the activists to guard the protected area. Though they filed a court complaint against Sotorn for arson, the case has not yet been processed, she said.
“I do not understand why the court processed Pok Sotorn [complaint] first because he just filed against us in April and we filed against him on February 22 but the court does not process our complaint,” she said. “I request the court drop the charge against me and my group because we did nothing wrong.”
Another activist Un Mon, 61, said that she is a member of the Boeng Pur Protected Area, but denied the allegations.
“They sued me with attempted murder and intentionally causing damage but I am not related to this accusation,” Mon said, adding that she never knew of Sotorn or had any contact with him and that she did not join any patrol to seize fishing nets from any citizens.
“We preserve this lake based on fishery law because we citizens in the community have the right to protect our natural lake to protect natural resources for all people because we do not protect this area for our personal benefits,” Mon said.
“I am sad for local authorities because we just want to protect natural resources but they accused us illegally while the people who commit real crimes, [are not],” she said.
She added that she hopes the provincial court will drop what she called a baseless complaint.
“I appeal to local authorities to pay attention and cooperate with us to protect this lake because it is in the public interest,” said Mon.
Duch Bunheng, chief of Lor Peang village in Taches commune, said local activists worked to prevent fishing in the lake, sometimes by seizing and destroying nets. But he said they never received permission to do so and the lake wasn’t officially recognized as a protected site.
“[Sophy] and her group go to protect Boeng Pur, as they want by themselves” Bunheng said. “They preserved it by themselves and the chiefs of three villages didn’t know.”
He said that he told them that before they do anything to protect the area, they need to have official documents, and any citizens from the three villages — Lor Peang, Samroang and Sovong — can apply to become members or directors of the Boeng Pur Protected area. He also said the local government had a plan to deepen the lake with excavators first and that no protection work could be done until it finishes.
Muo Hak, chief of Samroang village, said that he and the other village chiefs thought that if local residents wanted to protect the area, the lake had to be first expanded, and then authorities would arrange for a protection zone.
He said that Sophy and her group seized fishing equipment whenever people went fishing in the area, making many in the community unhappy.
“They could not protect any area that they want, it should be limited by authorities,” he said, noting that the lake was nearly 30 hectares and that thousands of residents depend on fishing there.
Him Vibol, deputy chief of Sovong village, said that this lake could not be a protected site due to its low water level in the dry season. When Sophy’s group built a cottage to guard the lake, he said he told them it wasn’t ready for such patrols.
“I think that if we want to preserve this lake, we should wait for a plan from the village and commune to restore this lake to deeper than now,” Vibol said.
He said that Sotorn, the plaintiff, lived in his village and complained to him after his nets were allegedly seized, but that he viewed it as a criminal crime and asked him to go to the police.
“I am summoned to clarify as a witness at the provincial court in September too,” said Vibol.
Pech Sam Ath, deputy police chief of Kampong Tralach district, said that first, Sotorn filed a complaint against Sophy and her group to district police and he wanted them to negotiate a settlement but that became impossible, so he asked the plaintiff to file a complaint at the provincial court directly.
“I think that if I invite them [ Sophy and her group], they will not come to clarify and so I asked a plaintiff to sue at the provincial court directly,” said Sam Ath.
He said that Sophy and her group were involved with many other land dispute cases.
On August 14, 2020 The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Sophy and a former Lor Peang village chief Touch Ly of incitement to commit a felony and handed her a one-year suspended sentence for her involvement in a long-running land dispute in Kampong Chhnang province. She was found guilty of inciting villagers to cultivate land belonging to agricultural company KDC, which is owned by Chea Kheng, wife of Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem.
The Lor Peang community has been embroiled in a nearly two-decade long land dispute with KDC, which claims ownership of 512 hectares located in Kampong Tralach district’s Taches commune. Several dozen families have yet to settle their dispute with KDC, which they say grabbed about 100 hectares of their land in 2002.