Fearing Arrest, Land Dispute Villagers Shy Away From Ratanakkiri Courthouse

Four villagers summoned to Ratanakkiri Provincial Court in a land dispute with the private rubber company DM Group failed to appear yesterday after filing a letter requesting a delay because they have no lawyer, the villagers said.

The four villagers were reportedly summoned for questioning because they broke the conditions of their release on bail by not reporting to the Batang commune office in Lumphat district, provincial court Judge Thor Saran said yesterday.

“We summoned them to the court to ask them whether they can respect the conditions or not,” the judge said. “Authorities said they often left the village without informing them.”

The villagers have been accused of trespassing and damaging rubber trees on 200 hectares of disputed land claimed by the company. Some 50 families in the commune, including the four summoned villagers, have accused the DM Group of illegally clearing the same 200 hectares, which the villagers had used as rotation farmland.

“If we appear at the court without a lawyer we will probably be arrested because the court supports the company,” said Sven Vev, one of the four summoned villagers. “We don’t believe Judge Thor Saran. He said we are wrong and he told us not to contact [human rights] NGOs,” he said.

Judge Saran said the court has granted the villagers their request for a delay. “We gave them permission for a week,” he said, adding that he has no plans to arrest the villagers when they do appear. Asked what he would do if they don’t appear a second time, he said, “We will still use the policy to educate them.”

The four villagers’ request for a delay comes less than a week after the return to Ratanakkiri province of outspoken local human rights activist Pen Bonnar. Mr Bonnar left the province last year after Judge Saran said that if he stayed living in Ratanakkiri he would face an incitement charge.

“They have lost confidence in the judge,” Mr Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said of the four villagers yesterday.

“The judge doesn’t work independently. He is biased to the company.”

Judge Saran denied that accusation.

“I am not biased to the company,” the judge said. “They committed the crime themselves. They listen to the incitement of the NGOs,” he added.


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