Government Paid Cash to ‘Secession’ Leaders

Two men once accused of leading a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province in May, and who later testified in court that popular radio station owner Mam Sonando had encouraged their rebellious actions, received money from the government to build new homes, a district official said.

Ma Chhang, 47, and Khat Saroeun, 42, were arrested and put on trial for their alleged roles in leading the so-called secession in Kratie’s Broma village. But both men had their sentences suspended, and were immediately freed from prison, after testifying against Mr. Sonando during their joint trial in October.

Even though he was overseas at the time of the alleged events, Mr. Sonando, 72, was jailed for 20 years for what the court said was his “instigation” of the Broma residents.

Though Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun were initially named as “anarchy masterminds” by the Ministry of Interior in May, they have since received an undisclosed amount of money from the government, Chhlong district governor Soum Sarith said.

“Provincial authorities gave them [Ma Chhang and Khat Saroeun] cash for building proper shelters,” Mr. Sarith said. “Because their homes burned down [after they fled the village in May], we helped support them with cash for building new homes to live in and other materials,” Mr. Sarith said.

The district governor declined to say how much was given to the two men or specify what kind of “materials” were provided to them.

Three neighbors of the two men in Broma village said this week that the pair has prospered since giving testimony in court and gaining their release from prison.

“Ma Chhang and Khat Saroeun have built very big homes since they turned themselves in,” said one of the villagers, who declined to be named for fear of retribution.

“These men have been treated very well…. They are very powerful in the village now,” the villager said.

Another neighbor estimated that the men now live on sizeable plots of land, possibly up to 20 hectares in size.

Land in Broma village was demarcated by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s student volunteers earlier this year. While the three villagers interviewed said they have also applied for land titles under the student volunteer scheme, none had received any cash to rebuild homes that Mr. Sarith said their two neighbors had received.

Kratie provincial governor Sar Chamrong denied on Wednesday that he had given any money to Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun to rebuild their homes.

“I don’t know about this…. If it’s true, maybe they got it [the money] from someone else,” he said.

Mr. Chamrong did confirm that Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun, along with all long-term residents of Broma village, have had their land measured recently as part of Mr. Hun Sen’s new land-titling program.

“We are implementing the government’s order…to measure land for all Cambodians, including Ma Chhang and Khat Saroeun because they are both local residents who have been living in Broma village for a long time,” he said.

However, when the Interior Ministry issued a statement in May seeking the arrest of Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun for leading the secession, the ministry said the two were officially residents of Kompong Cham province.

Neighbors said this week that the pair had moved to Broma only in the past couple of years.

On May 16, when government security forces launched its massive operation against Broma, the only casualty was the 14-year-old girl Heng Chantha, who was shot dead as she hid in her house.

The raid on Broma followed months of protests by the villagers against the loss of their land to a rubber company.

Though the so-called rebellion has been quelled, villagers and human rights groups say that Broma village is still sealed off to outsiders, with military checkpoints at all roads leading into the area.

“The situation here is really tense. We dare not speak publicly about the intimidation in Broma village,” one resident said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of fears for her safety.

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