Three men embroiled in a land dispute with a company owned by the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem were arrested Tuesday while marching with about 50 fellow villagers from Kompong Chhnang province’s Lor Peang village to Phnom Penh.
The villagers planned to walk the approximately 70 km from rural Ta Ches commune to the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh in a desperate bid to end their dispute with the development firm KDC—owned by Mr. Sem’s wife, Chea Kheng—and secure the release of two villagers arrested over clashes last month with the company’s workers.
But they were met on National Road 5 in Kompong Chhnang’s Chhouk Sar commune by rows of police and military police armed with batons and shields, according to villager Khat Saruon.
“Police and military police blocked the national road, then they started destroying our rice pots, plates and clothes that were being kept in a cart, since the land protesters planned to stay temporarily in Phnom Penh,” Ms. Saruon said.
“Then we confronted the police, who were carrying shields and batons. Police slapped me twice on my face and then hit me repeatedly with their batons on my shoulders and arms,” she said.
Ta Ches commune police chief Chuop Chanthoeun referred questions about the skirmish to the provincial police, who could not be reached. But Mr. Chanthoeun confirmed the three arrests and said his officers are looking to arrest more villagers in connection with the July clashes.
After the scuffle, police arrested Snguon Nhoeun, one of eight villagers who have refused to honor a summons ordering them to go to the Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court for questioning over a clash in July with workers building a wall around the disputed land.
Two other villagers, Srun Tha and Kuch Hok, were also arrested. All three were loaded into a truck and taken to the provincial police headquarters before being sent to the court and charged with the intentional destruction of property and causing intentional violence with aggravating circumstances.
Last night, the three men were detained at the provincial prison, according to prison director Peou Vuthy.
The story of their arrest began more than a decade ago.
In 2002, Ms. Kheng’s firm purchased 600 hectares of land, including 145 hectares that had been farmed for decades by families in Lor Peang. Thus began a protracted legal battle that has seen the courts ignore complaints filed by the villagers while aggressively pursuing those filed by the company and its workers.
Over the years, the affected villagers “have faced many forms of violence, arrest and imprisonment,” only to see the courts repeatedly side with Ms. Kheng, according to Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho.
Facing intimidation and the possibility of being left empty-handed, some villagers have decided to take compensation packages from KDC and move off the land. Others have continued to hold out.
Chan Soveth, senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said the case actually dates back as far as 2001, when villagers say they were betrayed by former village chief Thai Hy, who went on to become a representative of KDC. Villagers say Mr. Hy colluded with other local officials to sell their land to Ms. Kheng’s company.
Since then, Mr. Soveth said, “at least 24 villagers locked in the dispute have been imprisoned, charged and arrested and wanted by the court for peaceful protest to protect the land allegedly grabbed by KDC.
“The company is so powerful, since the owner is a rich businesswoman whose husband is a senior government official,” he said. Because of this, “the authorities have failed to investigate properly to find out whether or not the villagers sold the land to the company.”
In 2009, one of Ms. Kheng’s lawyers threatened The Cambodia Daily with legal action if reports continued to mention the fact that she is Mr. Sem’s wife. He said at the time that this would constitute the spreading of “disinformation.”
In February, Ms. Kheng gave documents to Adhoc showing that she paid $70,000 for 600 hectares of land, including the disputed 145 hectares. The same month, she agreed to the formation of a committee tasked with investigating the veracity of villagers’ claims to the land. But villagers say the committee made no effort to adjudicate the dispute, and instead forced compensation deals upon them.
Ta Ches commune chief Nuon San said Ms. Kheng’s claim to the land was rock solid, as she had all the correct documentation.
“It’s not about whether it is a powerful company or not,” he said. “The fact is that the company has all the legal documents before the law to prove its legal right to the land—that is not land grabbing.”
However, according to the Land Law, citizens have a legal right to a land title if they have been living on undisputed private land for at least five years prior to 2001.
One elderly villager who claims to have lived on the land since 1979, filed a personal case against Ms. Kheng. The court ruled in Ms. Kheng’s favor and the then-70-year-old was ordered to pay $2,500 to KDC.
In July, despite 16 families still refusing compensation from the company, workers hired by KDC began erecting a wall around the disputed site and tensions boiled over. During a series of clashes last month, rocks and chunks of rebar were fired at the villagers by slingshot-wielding workers, who were also injured by projectiles thrown by the villagers.
At least eight residents of Lor Peang and nearby villages were summoned to court following the most recent clash with workers on July 17. Five of them, including the three arrested Tuesday, are now being held in pretrial detention.
Mr. Sam Ath of Licadho said the recent unrest in Lor Peang was the inevitable result of more than a decade of failure by the government and courts to do their job.
“It was said before, and now it is long overdue that the government realizes that unresolved land conflicts are a threat to Cambodia’s social stability,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)