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Villagers protest at ministries after land dispute arrests

A villager talks to a journalist outside the Justice Ministry where he and about 30 others submitted a petition on August 11 seeking intervention in a land dispute. Panha Chhorpoan

About 30 villagers who fled their home villages in Tbong Khmum province on August 3 due to fear of arrest protested outside several ministries in Phnom Penh this week seeking a solution to a land dispute which led to more than 20 arrests.

The group submitted a petition at the Land Management Ministry on the morning of August 13 appealing for help after 400 joint police forces on August 3 arrested 21 villagers who they accused of occupying and cultivating land belonging to a Chinese agriculture company in Dambe district. 

On August 4, the provincial court charged one of those arrested, Hoeun Sineath, in pretrial with causing intentional damage with aggravating circumstances on the firm’s property and placed him in pretrial detention.

Tboung Khmum provincial court secretariat chief Theng Cheang said August 11 that Sineath was apprehended after a warrant was issued saying the suspect had damaged machinery belonging to Harmony Investment.

“Hoeun Sineath was charged with intentionally causing damage with aggravating circumstances under articles 410 and 411 of Code Criminal,” he said, adding that he was sent to pretrial detention at the provincial prison.

Villagers said the remaining 20 arrested residents were allowed to return home after provincial authorities had forced them to sign a contract promising to stop protesting, an allegation authorities denied.

Some 30 residents of Sre Praing and Bosnor villages made the trip to Phnom Penh on August 11 to submit petitions at the ministries of Justice, Interior and Land Management seeking a resolution over a 1,200 hectare area that is claimed by them and Harmony Investment.

In the petition, they also requested the government secure the release of Sineath and Sem Seang, also a Sre Praing resident involved in past protests, who was convicted of extortion with a weapon in 2019 and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Chhuon Limheng, a 24-year-old from Sre Praing who was protesting outside the Justice Ministry on August 11, said that she is afraid to return home because local authorities had arrested her husband and threatened to arrest her.

“If we did not escape, they would force us to make a thumbprint [saying we would not protest] and they have threatened to imprison us,” she said.

“I think that [the arrests] are unreasonable and violate people’s rights,” Limheng said.

She added that her husband, Pom Pech, 28, was arrested on August 3 and released the next day after officials made him thumbprint an agreement saying he would stop protesting and claiming land that belongs to Harmony Investment.

Limheng said she cultivated cassava and other crops on a 2-hectare plot of land that the company also says it owned. She left her hometown seven days ago and is temporarily sheltering on farmland elsewhere in the province.

“Yes, I miss my child and husband, however, I have to struggle until I have a solution,” she said.

Another villager, Sut Nun, 43, who has a 5-hectare cassava farm in Trapaing Pring commune’s Sre Praing village said she was also scared of arrest.

“I dare not to return because I am afraid they will threaten us to make a thumbprint and to say we will stop protesting,” she said.

On August 3, Nun said the Chinese firm arrived with machinery to dismantle cottages the villagers had built to use as temporary shelter while they tended their farmland.

“I think it’s unjust for us as we are Khmer just the same,” Nut said, adding that police officials had arrested other villagers for demonstrating against Harmony Investment.

“They claimed that villagers had sold that land to the company, but we never sold land at all,” she said.

Mao Dun, provincial administration chief, on August 11 rejected villagers’ claims that local authorities had threatened them and forced them to thumbprint documents.

“No one has forced them [to make a thumbprint],” he said. When asked about 20 villagers were forced to sign a contract before they were released from detention.

“Right now, villagers agreed to stop protesting because the land belongs to the company,” Dun said.

He said 20 people were released from jail on August 4 after they agreed to stop holding protests on their land, adding that police officials had only briefly detained the villagers after they had disturbed officials who were serving an arrest warrant for Sineath for destroying Harmony Investment’s property.

Now, the situation has calmed after the residents of the two villages had agreed to stop making claims to land that did not belong to them.

Dun said Harmony Investment had purchased more than 1,000 hectares of land from people living in Dambe district in 2011 and has been farming the land since.

Dun accused the civil society group who are working human rights defending is behind the land dispute.

“Previously there was a human rights organization like Adhoc that incited villagers not to listen to the land management authorities,” he said. 

Dambe District Governor Sok Sarith could not be reached for comment.

Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said he was concerned for the safety of the villagers who had been intimidated by authorities, and called on the national level to create an independent committee to investigate allegations that local authorities had forced villagers to sign contracts.

“It is illegal that authority officials have threatened villagers to make a thumbprint against their will,” he said.

“It is a violation of citizen freedoms that is clearly stipulated in the Kingdom’s constitution,” Senkaruna said, adding that the government has to punish officials who have broken the law.

Senkaruna had dismissed the provincial authority’s allegation that Adhoc had fueled the land dispute, saying that authorities should find a solution for the villagers rather than making accusations.

“The land conflict has occurred between villagers and the company, so they can ask those villagers who is behind it,” he said. “It is not a problem of civil society.” 

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin on August 12 said the ministry has received the petition from the villagers who had come to Phnom Penh and would create a working group to look into it, noting that the ministry cannot interfere with the court to release detainees.

“The ministry does not have any measure because we do not know if it is the truth or not, because only one side has raised that issue,” he said when asked if the ministry had looked into accusations that provincial authorities had forced people to sign contracts.  

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