A group of about 200 farmers from Kratie province refused on Thursday to leave a pagoda in Phnom Penh—their home base for protests against their eviction at the hands of a Vietnamese rubber company—as the city’s deputy governor warned them that the municipal government would “implement the law” if they did not head back to their homes by this morning.
Deputy governor Khuong Sreng arrived at the Samakki Raingsey pagoda at about 9 a.m. Thursday along with a group of officials assigned to determine where individual villagers had lived before moving to disputed land in Snuol district’s Khyoem commune.
“I would like to state that all of you are living on the land illegally because this is state land,” Mr. Sreng told the villagers.
The government officials, after surveying the farmers, found that 148 had lived in Kompong Cham province before moving to the disputed land in Kratie province, 50 were from Kratie province, four from Prey Veng province, one from Kandal and one from Takeo.
Mr. Sreng told the villagers that trucks were due to arrive at 2 p.m. to pick them up and bring them back to their home provinces, but those plans were ultimately put on hold and the villagers were told they could stay at the pagoda for one more night.
A group of about 10 military police arrived at 2 p.m., but made no effort to confront the villagers throughout the afternoon.
Mr. Sreng said authorities would return today to pick up the villagers.
“We will implement the law if they do not agree to go.”
Asked if authorities would use force to move the villagers, Mr. Sreng declined to comment.
The villagers have been staying at the pagoda for the past week as they have petitioned government offices and embassies to help mediate the dispute following their eviction on May 2 by Vietnamese rubber firm Binh Phuoc 2.
“I will stay in this pagoda until they give me my land back,” said Yung Phalla, 26, who said she moved to the Snuol district site from Kompong Cham in 2008.
“I had two children but one died because I couldn’t afford to pay for treatment. I am worried for my surviving child and that’s why I demand my farmland back,” she said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Sreng suggested that the villagers were not simply fighting to keep their land, but were serving the interests of the opposition CNRP, whose president, Sam Rainsy, has voiced his support for the group, referring to them as “internal refugees.”
Lorn Voeun, a 45-year-old villager, on Thursday refuted this claim.
“We have just come to fight for our land, not for any political reasons.”
Seang Sovannara, chief monk at the Samakki Raingsey pagoda, said he would do his utmost to protect the villagers, despite Mr. Sreng claiming the monks have agreed to let authorities “take them” at 8 a.m. today.
“We will not allow authorities to take them unless they produce a stamped letter to prove they offer farmland to these people,” he said.
Long Ry, the director of security for the CNRP, said that the opposition party had sent 30 security personnel to the pagoda to protect the villagers through the night.