Local land developer DM Group is facing off, not only with ethnic minority hilltribes in Ratanakkiri province over 200 hectares of land, but also with the provincial court prosecutor charged with investigating the case, villagers and court officials said on Nov 21.
DM Group has filed a lawsuit against eight Tampuon minority villagers, four of whom were questioned by the court on Nov 20, and has also accused prosecutor Mey Sokhan of backing the villagers due to personal business interests.
More than 100 families in Lumphat district’s Batang commune have been battling DM Group since August 2007, suing the company for allegedly clearing more than 200 hectares of their land. DM officials say the land is the company’s and have countersued for property damage and trespassing.
Deputy Prosecutor Ros Saram confirmed on Nov 21 that he questioned four villagers on Nov 20 over allegations they had destroyed fencing belonging to the firm, used threatening words against DM workers, and built tents on the company’s land.
Ros Saram, however, declined to comment on whether he would summon his colleague, prosecutor Mey Sokhan, for questioning over the company’s allegations of bias.
“Both the villagers and the company have claimed the disputed land,” Ros Saram said by telephone. “The villagers have acknowledged and realize that they planted crops on disputed land. But the minority villagers also accuse the company of grabbing their farmland,” he said.
Contacted by telephone, Mey Sokhan defended his handling of the case.
“I have no idea why the company has accused me like that,” he said. “The facts will appear and it will become clear that I am not behind the villagers. I am independent.”
“I investigated this controversial land dispute from when the two parties first filed complaints with the court, but I have since handed the case off to a deputy prosecutor.”
In September, the villagers had also accused Mey Sokhan of bias in favor of the company.
Sun Vev, a representative of villagers, said that the company had offered to relocate the affected families living in the disputed area but had offered them land of an inferior quality.
“The company has offered a new location where the soil quality is bad,” he said. “My community just needs to carry on with traditional rotational [farming techniques] so that we can feed our families.”
Chai Ty, an activist for local rights group Adhoc, said that many had already pressured the villagers into relinquishing their claim to the disputed land, including the developer, local officials and representatives of the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes.