Around 1,000 villagers from three Cambodian provinces blocked the road leading to the Land Ministry in Phnom Penh on Monday to demand government help in resolving disputes over land taken by private companies and politically connected businesspeople, sources in the country said.
Protesters from Koh Kong, Svay Rieng, and Tbong Khmum provinces held up photos of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, and Cambodian King Sihamoni and the Queen Mother, as they launched their appeal, but were refused assistance by Ministry officials and left at the end of the day with no promises of help.
Yee Kunthea, a representative of dispossessed villagers in coastal Cambodia’s Koh Kong, said her group had never received compensation for farmland that over 1,000 families in three districts had lost to a sugarcane company owned by Ly Yong Phat, a senator belonging to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), to another company owned by businessman Heng Huy, and to Chinese company the Union Development Group (UDG).
The group had traveled to the capital hoping to appeal in person at the Ministry, but had been violently pushed away from the building by security forces, Yee Kunthea said, adding, “We wanted to meet with His Excellency Chea Sophara, the Minister of Land, but no one came down from the Ministry except for the police.”
“The Ministry workers opened their windows to watch us blocking the road. And then they promised they would let me enter the Ministry at 2:00 p.m.,” she continued, adding that the Ministry then released a press statement later that afternoon saying there were no legal grounds for the department to intervene in the dispute.
Khieu Sarun, a representative of villagers from Svay Rieng, said that she and her group had come to protest at the capital because local authorities had failed for nearly 20 years to resolve a land dispute in her province between almost 450 farm families and an Indian company called NK Venture.
Authorities had also threatened dispossessed families, telling them they would be arrested if they tried to return to their former homes and land, she said.
“We’re appealing for justice for our farmers,” Khieu Sarun said.
“The authorities have protected this foreign company and allowed them to do to us whatever they want to do, while we—the landowners—have no rights at all to our land. We are constantly faced with threats and arrests,” she said.
“I understand that everybody wants so-called development [in Cambodia], but please also look at the people’s situation too. If development only causes misery, we don’t need it.”
Tricked into signing away their land
Another group of protesters, from the Trapeang Pring commune in Tbong Khmum, urged the Ministry to come to their commune to solve their years-long dispute with the Chinese Hamenient Investment Company and help free two of their jailed commune members.
Tha Lida, a representative of 42 families in the commune, said their villagers had never wanted to sell their land to the Chinese company, but that local authorities had tricked them into signing with their thumb-prints faked documents allowing the company to buy the land needed by residents for their survival.
The Ministry of Land should now investigate the case to see if the Chinese company used proper documents when it “bought the land” from the people, as the local authorities claimed, he said, adding, “I request the government to encourage the subnational authorities to reinvestigate this land dispute in order to discover the truth.”
Attempts to reach Land Ministry spokesperson Seng Loth for comment were unsuccessful on Monday
Am Sam Ath, deputy chief of the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said however that the Land Ministry has already solved many cases of land disputes, and should use the same mechanisms to solve the country’s remaining problems in transparent and nonviolent ways.
“I think the Ministry should find out the root causes of these problems, and then the solution to these chronic problems should be found. If we do not handle these problems properly, there will be even more complications resulting from this crisis,” he said.
A key source of social tension in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries is the widespread practice of land grabs in which authorities seize land from people for development projects or foreign invested enterprises without paying them fair compensation for lost crops, property, and livelihoods.