Ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri province embroiled in a high-profile land dispute with Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, have accused Ms Kolney’s firm of distributing small gifts to buy influence in the area, villager representatives said yesterday.
Indigenous villagers have filed civil and criminal suits against Ms Kolney, whom they accuse of swindling them out of 450 hectares of land in O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune. Ms Kolney has counter-sued the villagers.
Eight representatives from the firm drove to Kong Yu village on Tuesday and started handing out gift bags, each of which contained tobacco, two bags of dry noodles, a half-kilogram of seasoning, one sarong, one krama, and cash ranging from 2,000 riel to 3,200 riel, according to Roman Hil, who represents 50 families involved in the court case.
“I am pretty clear that these people work for that powerful and rich woman who has grabbed our rotational farmland,” Mr Hil said.
Villager Sev Thvel claimed yesterday that the unsolicited gift distribution was an attempt to influence villagers involved in the lawsuit.
“To offer such gifts is to buy our people’s hearts to stop the lawsuit, because they have failed in using hot measures such as intimidation and pressuring us to drop the lawsuit,” he said.
Contact information for Ms Kolney’s current legal representatives was not immediately available yesterday.
Many of the families involved in the court cases-which have dragged on since 2007-cannot feed their families because they have only small plots of farmland left, Mr Thvel said.
“Any families with more than three members have faced food shortages,” he added.
Sev Nhang, chief of Pate commune, said yesterday that he had not witnessed the food distribution but that it was not a problem.
“If the firm distributed food for these poor people, it is not a crime,” he said.
“Almost 90 percent of villagers acknowledged that they already sold the land for [Her Excellency] Keat Kolney,” he added. “To distribute food is a humanitarian activity.”
In October, Mr Nhang and District Governor Dak Sar urged villagers to accept cash payments and gifts from Ms Kolney and to end their lawsuits against her.