Security forces surrounding an Oddar Meanchey province village on Friday bulldozed and set fire to about 50 homes belonging to people involved in a land dispute with a sugar company, villagers and rights workers said.
Inhabitants of O’Bat Mon village in Samraong town’s Konkriel commune said their belongings were strewn on the ground under midday rains and their homes were dismantled and destroyed by a joint task force of police, military police and regular RCAF troops.
However, provincial police said they were in fact only removing temporary shelters illegally installed on a sugar plantation.
Since Monday, at least eight villager representatives have gone into hiding and four villagers have been arrested in the dispute over land granted in 2007 as an agricultural concession to Angkor Sugar Company.
Company representatives could not be reached Friday.
One 37-year-old widow, who for fear of retribution agreed to provide only her given name, Longnak, said she had been too afraid to resist.
“I dared not to fight back because they threatened to handcuff me and send me to jail if I dared to stop them from clearing my house,” she said. “They threw my clothes and other household possessions onto the wet ground and didn’t allow me to collect them.”
Another villager, a 41-year-old mother of three, who also gave only her given name, Silem, said that the secretary-general for the provincial government, Pa Ramin, had convened a meeting on Friday to tell the villagers that, under a survey conducted by commune officials and Angkor Sugar, only 39 families of the 214 present had been selected to receive compensation in the form of 30-by-50-meter residential plots and a hectare of farmland each.
“How can I stop them since they are armed? They destroy our small houses to take the land for rich and powerful business people only because we have no money to give them,” said Ms Silem.
Rights workers from the NGOs Licadho and Adhoc said security forces had attempted to bar them from entering the village to witness the event.
However, provincial police chief Men Ly said that no rights workers had been denied entry and rejected allegations that any homes had been demolished.
Mr Ly said joint forces led by court officials and officials from the Forestry Administration had only “removed tents” built on the legally established sugar plantation of Angkor Sugar, which has been awarded an agricultural concession and gained the approval from the government.
“Rights workers can walk in and out of the village freely,” said` Mr Ly. “The joint forces are just removing tents, not residential houses, illegally built between the rows of sugar cane.”
He referred further questions to the provincial court and forestry office, where officials could not be reached.
Human rights monitors Chan Soveth of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, and Am Sam Ath of Licadho said Friday that ten human rights workers were stopped at road blocks at two main access points to the village.
“To demolish and burn down even small cottages with thatched roofs is a serious human rights violation because it is better to solve the matter with villagers peacefully,” he said.
“I have seen workers and joint forces including police, military police as well as soldiers transported by truck into the village,” said Mr Sam Ath.
“They blocked the road and did not let us enter without a letter of authorization.”
Former village chief Huoy Chhuoy, who helped divide the land into plots for the 214 families in 2003, said that the prime minister’s Cabinet and other senior officials had instructed local authorities to find a resolution.
“But, the offer made by provincial authorities, villagers could not accept, and they finally arrested and caused big trouble for the villagers,” he said.
Villagers interviewed Friday said Angkor Sugar is owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, the concessionaire of sugar plantations in Koh Kong province where land disputes have also arisen.
Mr Yong Phat could not be reached Friday. Pa Ramin, the provincial secretary-general, was unavailable Friday but said Thursday that the concession was not owned by Mr Yong Phat but by owners he could not name.
“This firm is co-owned by a Cambodian investor with foreigners,” he said.
RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Sao Sokha and Deputy Provincial Military Police Commander Puth Sarann declined to comment.