More than 80 Ratanakkiri province ethnic minority villagers protested the destruction of their crops Thursday despite an armed police presence and alleged threats of imprisonment by authorities, a villager representative and a human rights worker said.
“If we stand in front of those tractors, they must use them to flatten villagers first or they cannot flatten our crops,” said protester representative Duong Sacha, 30.
“If we allow them to continue clearing the crops, our village land will be lost as well, because [land title holder] Khit Sok Khay claims to hold all the land,” he said.
He added that more than 10 hectares of crops have already been destroyed and that villagers have vowed to protest until they get it all back.
Ratanakkiri province Adhoc Coordinator Pen Bonnar said that more than 10 O’Chum district police officials carrying guns had threatened to shoot or arrest the villagers, but had so far not followed through.
He added that the disputed farmland, where villagers grow rice, cashew trees and other crops, lies only 30 meters from their village.
O’Chum district Governor Phou Kim Moeur said that only a few “ringleaders” might be arrested.
“I would not arrest innocent villagers, because most of those ethnic minority villagers have been incited to fight against us and the landowner,” Phou Kim Moeur said.
He added that a provincial court warrant allowed Khit Sok Khay to continue destroying the crops.
Sam Rainsy Party steering committee member Mu Sochua, who has visited the site of the dispute, said on Thursday that the court and authorities were acting in a biased manner in favor of the supposed landowner and against the villagers.
Such is common in many land disputes, she said.
She added that it was dangerous for police to arrive armed in land disputes with unarmed villagers.
“They protest by peaceful means,” Pen Bonnar said. “They carry nothing. They use their own lives to protest,” he said.