Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet on Tuesday refused to accept a petition from some 200 farmers who traveled from Kratie province to Phnom Penh to ask for help in settling their land dispute with a plantation owner, urging them to try settling the case with their local authorities first.
Representatives of the 329 families say they started moving onto the land, in Snuol district’s Snuol commune, in 2002 and were farming it until 2008, when the Growest Building Trading Co. arrived and cleared 1,562 hectares of their fields. Another company, Horizon Agriculture Development, bought the land in 2010 to grow cassava and peppers.
Some 200 farmers gathered at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park on Tuesday to hand in their petition asking Mr. Hun Sen to intervene and give them the land back.
Kong Chamroeun, a secretary in the prime minister’s cabinet, came out to meet the farmers but told them to turn around and head back home.
“We cannot take the petition from you because you have not yet tried to solve this with the local authorities,” he told them. “We ask all of you to return home to find a solution with the local authorities, and we will intervene later if that fails.”
Choeun Heath, who said he lost 5 hectares of farmland to the companies, said he was disappointed by the rejection.
“We have had a hard time making a living after the company cleared our cassava and occupied our farms,” he said. “About 70 percent of us now do construction work or make money by working on someone else’s farm.”
Mr. Heath said the families had been given permission by Snuol commune officials to occupy the land.
Another of the farmers, Suon Vicheka, said the families came to Phnom Penh because the provincial land management department had already ruled in the company’s favor after the company complained about the families’ repeated protests in 2013.
Snuol district governor Kong Kimny said the provincial government on July 8 gave the families one month to file a complaint with the Ministry of Agriculture requesting an investigation.
Mr. Vicheka said they would have filed their petition with the ministry Tuesday but had their way blocked by police who had cordoned off an area around the Vietnamese Embassy because of an unrelated protest.
He said the families would stay in Phnom Penh in the coming days to submit their petition with various ministries and maybe even try their luck with Mr. Hun Sen’s cabinet once more.