kompong cham – In early May, Keo Van Tuot was riding his bicycle past his friend’s house in Roka Pou Pram village, Tbong Khmum district. Because it was an especially hot day, he decided to pay a friend a visit and stop for a drink of tea.
Some say that if Keo Van Tout were not an activist and Funcinpec commune councilor, he most likely would have left his friend’s house and continued on his way.
Instead, said Keo Van Tout, five policemen surrounded him in the yard of the house shortly after he arrived and “invited” him to the village police station. They handcuffed him and shouted loudly, “You are bin Laden!”—a slur aimed at his Muslim faith.
Rather than placing Keo Van Tout in the police truck that transported the five policemen to the house, the authorities placed him on the back of a motorcycle “to show everyone so everyone could see me. They wanted to humiliate me when they took me to prison,” Keo Van Tout said.
Keo Van Tout has remained behind bars at the Kompong Cham provincial prison since his arrest May 3. He has been officially charged by the provincial court with destroying state property, and unofficially has been accused by officials from a US company of shooting an AK-47 at several men, hitting one in the right arm and another in the side.
“This is a pretend accusation—this is the pretext they are using to try to stop me from solving a land dispute,” Keo Van Tout said last week during an interview inside the prison. “I am accused and arrested for doing wrongdoing because people always came to me and asked for help.”
In the months before his arrest, Keo Van Tout served as a newly-elected Funcinpec commune councilor in Roka Pou Pram commune. And years before his election to office—starting in 1999—he was an activist fighting for land rights in the area. It was his activism, he says, that eventually led to his arrest.
His story begins in 1999, when hundreds of villagers from Roka Pou Pram asked Keo Van Tout to intervene on their behalf. According to the accused, officials from the local UN office, and villagers interviewed in the area, there were two parties involved in the land dispute.
One group of 191 villagers was led by Keo Van Tout. He claims that the villagers had legal tenure to the more than 640 hectares of land being disputed.
On the other side was a man named Mao Phirun, who currently is the second deputy governor of Kompong Cham. Mao Phirun represented 88 families who claimed they had a legal right to the land. However, several people—including Keo Van Tout—accused Mao Phirun of using his political position to influence the families into joining his suit.
Higher authorities intervened in the case.
In May, 19 1999, a document drafted by Kompong Cham provincial Governor Cheang Am and approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen states that the 191 families from Roka Pou Pram village represented by Keo Van Tout should receive a large portion of the land in question.
“I, the Prime Minister, discussed with the Deputy Prime Minister, Sar Kheng, agree on the people’s suggestion/proposal [to return 500 hectares] who occupy this land. The government denies the decisions of the local authorities and land title office. The provincial authorities have to return this land to them [the 191 families],” the document states.
The prime minister’s decision also ordered any new occupiers of the land to immediately vacant the premises.
Another document, dated May 20, 1999 and drafted by Minister of Cabinet Sok An, and sent to the provincial governor, reinforced Hun Sen’s decision.
“Return all land—the whole land—to the people upon their suggestion. Any household who used the land in previous years will have the land returned. The Royal Government will eliminate all the decisions of the local authorities and land title authorities who abuse the land of people illegally,” the Council of Ministers document states.
The case, however, was far from settled.
About five months later, on Oct 25, 1999, villagers representing the 88 families who lost the case, protested in Phnom Penh after Hun Sen’s decision and set up a land committee. They protested for a different land distribution and wanted to share the land, according to Math Chu, a villager in Roka Pou Pram who was interviewed last week.
“They set up the committee to demand the land, but it was really set up by the authorities,” Math Chu said.
In Dec 7, 2000, the Kompong Cham provincial court reversed the order by Hun Sen and granted the land in question to the 88 families represented by Mao Phirun with no protest by the central government—a decision that was upheld again in June 28, 2001, in the provincial court.
Keo Van Tout continued to fight for the 191 families so they could receive a part of the land.
In March 2001, a US venture capital firm, named the SRP International Group, completed a feasibility study in Roka Pou Pram to start a teak farm with soy bean cultivation.
Founded in 1999 by current company president Daniel Mitchell, the company set out to start “socially responsible investing in emerging markets to go beyond avoidance of investment that do no harm to people and the environment. We seek investments that have positive affects [for] society and the environment,” according to a company statement.
By July 2001, SRP International had planted 4.5 million seedlings of valuable teak trees, with soybeans planted between the rows of teak to enrich the soil. No seedling would be mature enough to harvest for another eight years, so according to Mitchell, the company “is in Cambodia for the long haul.”
Unknown to Mitchell, however, was the fact that he leased land in the disputed area which Keo Van Tout had been fighting for.
“I had never heard about any land disputes [in the Roka Pou Pram] site,” Mitchell said Wednesday in Phnom Penh. “No one ever brought up any complaints to us. We are helping in the area to develop sustainable agriculture.”
Mitchell and several employees of SRP International who were interviewed in Phnom Penh and in Roka Pou Pram said people began to vandalize the teak land they were leasing in April 2002. The seedlings in several hectares were dug up; the plots of land destroyed. In at least six incidents, which SRP International reported to the police in April, people in groups of eight to 76 would destroy teak seedlings in the 1,850 hectare area of land which they had been leasing.
Mitchell, as well as several guards interviewed last week at the sight, positively identified Keo Van Tout as the culprit in the alleged vandalism.
The alleged acts of vandalism came to a head on April 28, 2002, when a truck carrying four employees of SRP International was “attacked by gunmen who had AK-47s and shot about 30 rounds into the truck,” Mitchell said. “Two of the men were shot wounded, and they were damned lucky not to have been killed.” Eyewitnesses to the shooting accused Keo Van Tout—who was not at the scene of the shooting—of being the mastermind behind the killing.
“This isn’t about a land dispute, this is about attempted murder,” Mitchell said. “Keo Van Tout and his men plotted to kill [employees of SRP International]. There is no debate on the shooting, and there is no debate that people have been hurt in the shooting. I’ve had two of my men shot at and nearly killed.”
Por Bunson was one of the men shot during the shooting. Interviewed in Phnom Penh Wednesday, he said a group of men shot the vehicle with an AK-47, wounding him in the side during the attack. The other SRP employee was shot in the right arm, he said. Although Por Bunson said Keo Van Tout was not involved in the incident, he said he was certain he was behind the shooting.
Other employees of SRP International in Kompong Cham agreed that Keo Van Tout was involved in the shooting but was not present when the gunfire broke out.
“Keo Van Tout is behind the killing,” said one SRP International guard who declined to be identified. The guard was interviewed last week in Roka Pou Pram. “He had been damaging this area for a long time.”
Providing photos of the bullet-ridden cars and affidavits submitted to police in Kompong Cham province from people saying Keo Van Tout was indeed the mastermind of the attack, Mitchell said he had been pressing the provincial court to take action against Keo Van Tout and charge him with conspiracy to commit murder.
The courts are taking a different view.
Kompong Cham provincial court Judge Tith Sothy said Wednesday that Keo Van Tout is being charged with destroying property in conjunction with the April incidents. Keo Van Tout, however, is not being charged with planning the shooting because the courts lack evidence to formally charge him.
“I did not break the law,” Keo Van Tout said. “I was working on the renovation of the road [about 3 to 4 km from the site of the shooting] when the incident occurred. I did not break the law. I have no piece of land in the area. I just represent the people.”
Keo Van Tout said he does not blame the US company for his imprisonment. Rather, he accused Second Deputy Governor Mao Phirun of ordering his arrest because of the ongoing land dispute.
Mao Phirun denied having any involvement of the arrest of Keo Van Tout on Wednesday. Speaking by phone from Kompong Cham province, Mao Phirun said “I do not have a piece of land in the area. Keo Van Tout incited people to destroy the land.”
Keo Van Tout’s case has incited a number of key individuals to act on his behalf. Recently, the Senate’s Human Rights Committee, led by Funcinpec Senator Kem Sokha, submitted a report saying Keo Van Tout is innocent.
Funcinpec National Assembly lawmaker Nan Sy called for Keo Van Tout’s release. UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht is scheduled to go to Kompong Cham Friday to discuss Keo Van Tout’s case with local officials. Even Prince Norodom Sirivudh could make a trip to Kompong Cham to discuss the case, according to a court official.
Yet Mitchell said he is still looking for proper legal procedure to take its course.
“Keo Van Tout should be charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” Mitchell said. On May 7, 2002, Mitchell filed a report with Stephen Druzak, the US Embassy economic attache, detailing the case against Keo Van Tout, accusing the Funcinpec commune councilor of targeting SRP International employees for “harassment, death threats and arson because they work for an American-owned company.”
Druzak could not comment on this specific case.
When asked if he regrets starting a business in Cambodia, however, Mitchell said “No. This country still needs foreign investment.”
Keo Van Tout will remain behind bars until the case is settled. Spending 23 hours a day in a packed jail house has left Keo Van Tuot looking pale and hallow. Large circles have formed under his eyes, his complexion is sickly white.
He does not complain about his conditions, however. He said the prison officials provide him with pork-free meals because he is a Cham Muslim, and once a day he is allowed outside the jail house to walk around the courtyard.
Keo Van Tout, however, expressed regrets over his involvement in the entire land rights issue.
“I wish I was not involved in politics. I wish I was a simple farmer and now I have this big trouble, yet I have done nothing wrong,” he said, adding “I am involved because we need democracy.”