Commission Accused of Bias in Land Dispute

The National Assembly’s commission on the interior, which on Tuesday visited the site of a long-running land dispute involving Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney, has been accused of bias by villagers involved in the case and two local NGOs.

The five parliamentarians held a meeting Monday with residents of Kong Yu village in O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune, but villagers and NGOs said that the Assembly commission took Keat Kolney’s side in the dispute.

In 2006, the ethnic Jarai villagers filed a suit alleging that Keat Kol­ney grabbed 450 hectares of their land and turned it into a rubber plantation.

Villager representative Sev Khem said the lawmakers told villagers to drop their lawsuit.

The commission “didn’t come to help villagers but to help Keat Kolney,” she said. “They said drop the lawsuit and take the money from the company.”

“They came like tourists and drank beers,” she said, adding that a representative of Keat Kolney’s company, Lok Chumteav, accompanied the commission.

Sev Khem added that villagers had no intention of dropping the suit.

Thy Bunthoeun, public relations officer for NGO Community Legal Education Center, which is providing legal services to the villagers, claimed Tuesday that Ratanakkiri Deputy Provincial Governor Bou Lam also attended the meeting and had threatened to arrest any villagers who walked out.

“He told the villagers that their rice was cooked already,” Thy Bunthoeun said, meaning that the land could not be returned as it had already been turned into a rubber plantation.

Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said he also had been unhappy with the meeting.

“Bou Lam threatened to arrest villagers,” he said. “The commission’s visit seemed to serve the interests of Lok Chumteav.”

SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, who chairs the commission, denied the allegations made against the commission on Tuesday, saying that the Jarai translator had misunderstood his words.

The land purchase by Keat Kolney was illegal, he said, adding: “Legally, both sides are wrong and that is the commission’s stance.”

Yim Sovann said the disputed land was communal land, which could not be bought or sold.

He said he had suggested to villagers a compromise wherein the company would retain the land as a government concession, but pay the villagers the market value of the land.

He added that this was not meant to pressure villagers, and was merely a suggestion, adding that he supports the villagers’ claim to the land.

Yim Sovann said he would write a report on the case to be presented at the National Assembly.

Bou Lam denied threatening to arrest any villagers, accusing NGOs of making trouble.

The commission was only suggesting ideas to the villagers as to how to settle the dispute, he said.

Keat Kolney’s lawyer Chhe Vibol denied his client had any involvement in the commission’s visit to Ratanakkiri.

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