More than 60 villagers in Battambang province began harvesting their rice planted on contested land in Bavel district on Monday, despite earlier fears of violence, a villager representative said.
Villagers had anticipated clashes with armed soldiers who were guarding the fields Sunday. However, the villagers were able to harvest at least 1 hectare of rice without incident, said Heng Mel, speaking on behalf of some
112 families who have planted rice on about 180 hectares of disputed land.
The 112 families say they are victims of a land grab by former Khmer Rouge soldiers who defected to the government in 1997. Some 360 hectares of land in the district, over which the families claim rightful ownership, were snatched by the soldiers and sold to 46 other families, the harvesters said.
“We will stay on the rice field until we finish harvesting,” Heng Mel said. he added that the villagers have built temporary shelters on the fields.
In April, the villagers reclaimed 180 hectares of the land and planted rice. Their plans to harvest the crops this month reignited the conflict.
Two villagers from the group of 112 families were arrested Nov 22 in connection with the dispute and charged with trying to destroy private property.
Though the families were able to begin their harvest, they still worried of possible violence.
Heng Mel said at least 10 soldiers were still guarding the land on behalf of the 46 families.
“We are very afraid of our security because it is very quiet here. There are no police to protect us,” he said. “We have no weapons, so we will use axes and knives to protect ourselves.”
Yim Meng Ly, provincial director of the rights group Adhoc, confirmed Monday that the soldiers had allowed the families to harvest. But he said, the conflict has not been resolved.
Battambang provincial Deputy police Chief So Sam An said late Monday that he will order local police officers to protect the villagers while they harvest.