About 100 villagers from Kompong Chhnang province marched through Phnom Penh on Tuesday petitioning foreign embassies to help halt the sale or development of a disputed plot of land that is claimed by a company owned by the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem.
After years of legal sparring between residents of Kompong Tralach district’s Lor Peang village and KDC International, owned by Mr. Sem’s wife, Chea Kheng, the development firm last year hastily built a concrete wall around the boundaries of the land that it claims to have legally purchased. The villagers say they have been living on or farming the land for decades, making them the legitimate owners.
Those who petitioned embassies Tuesday said they made the trip to Phnom Penh because six signs were posted around the walled-off plot about two weeks ago, sparking fears that Ms. Kheng planned to sell it.
Although the signs are currently blank, Oum Sophy, a representative of the villagers, said they decided to take preemptive action in an attempt to prevent foreign companies from doing business with KDC.
“I have not yet received specific information about whether the company is going to sell or lease the land, but I am worried because I have seen the six blank boards posted on the land,” Ms. Sophy said.
Escorted by about a dozen government security guards, the villagers delivered petitions to the office of the European Union delegation as well as the U.S. and Chinese embassies.
“I hope that all the embassies will tell their people not to invest in KDC’s land because this company violated and seized the land of villagers in the Lor Peang community,” Ms. Sophy said.
Phat Poeu Seang, an attorney for KDC, denied Ms. Kheng had plans to sell the disputed land and said the signs would eventually display the company’s development plans.
“The company posted the boards on the land to advertise the development plan. I am sure the boards were not posted to sell the land,” he said.
In September, the National Assembly’s human rights commission, headed by opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, intervened in the land dispute and promised to help find a solution acceptable to both sides.
However, more than seven months later—and after meetings with representatives of the villagers, the company and local officials—Mr. Chhay Eang indicated Tuesday that the commission had met with little success.
“We already collected [compensation] requests from the villagers and we will take the requests to talk with the company and then we will let the two sides negotiate together,” he said.
“The commission is not a solution maker, we are just a mediator.”
In July, U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi issued a statement calling on KDC to halt development until a transparent resolution process was conducted. The statement was ignored by the company.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said her office was keeping a close eye on the case.
“We continue to be very concerned, to monitor the situation, and to intervene where deemed helpful to do so; however, we will not interfere while negotiations were ongoing,” Ms. Lee said in an email.
“We will review the situation now that protests have been relaunched by the community.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)
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