Government-Formed Land Dispute Committee Suspected of Bias

The Kompong Chhnang provincial government has set up a new committee to help settle a long-running land dispute between local farmers and a company owned by the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem, but a representative of the villagers has not been invited to participate in the committee.

Mr. Sem’s wife, Chea Kheng, owns KDC International, which has been locked in a land dispute with 52 families over 145 hectares of farmland in Kompong Tralach district since 2007.

In a letter dated March 3 and obtained Monday, provincial Governor Chou Chandoeun approves the creation of the committee “to hold a dialogue directly between the company and the 52 families involved in the dispute by inviting each family to compromise and end the dispute between the villagers and the KDC company.”

The 15-member committee, however, formed at KDC’s request and headed by deputy provincial governor Dork Sothea, does not include a single villager. The only member of the committee not employed by the government or the firm is the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, Sam Chankea.

Other members include Ms. Kheng, KDC attorney Phat Pauv Seang, KDC representative Thai Hy, Ta Ches commune police chief Chuop Chanthoeun, and commune councilors Lom Ley and Kang Triya.

Mr. Chankea of Adhoc said he sent the provincial governor a letter on Friday asking him to remove four of the members—Mr. Hy, Mr. Chanthoeun, Mr. Ley and Mr. Triya— because the villagers suspected them of being biased in KDC’s favor. The villagers thought it appropriate that Ms. Kheng and her attorney should stay on the committee, however.

“We are asking the provincial governor to dismiss the four from the committee investigating the dispute because they have been working in favor of the company since the dispute erupted,” Mr. Chankea said. “And we ask that villagers’ representatives, or at least their attorney, be installed so that a just solution can be found.”

If the four were not replaced, villager Reach Seima said, the families would not heed its decision and would press ahead with their lawsuit against KDC.

“We don’t want this committee because almost all the members are the company’s people, so we will fight in court even though the courts are not independent,” he said.

Ouk Dim, who heads the provincial government’s inter-sector unit, confirmed receipt of the Adhoc letter seeking a more representative committee, but he said the governor had yet to make a decision.

Mr. Chanthoeun, one of the four committee members being asked to leave, insisted that he was a neutral party yet at the same time took KDC’s side in the dispute.

“The company has solid documentation to prove its legal ownership of the land,” he said. “The villagers embroiled in the dispute are confused about me because I deliver them the court warrants, so they assume I act in favor of the company.”

Mr. Chanthoeun said he would leave the committee if the governor requested it.

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