The Commerce Ministry has threatened to take unspecified legal “measures” against anyone joining a protest against a sugarcane plantation who does not have a personal claim in the dispute.
The ministry issued the warning on Thursday, two days after villagers from Oddar Meanchey province held a press conference in Phnom Penh to urge the government to let them resettle on the land they were evicted from several years ago to make way for a trio of Thai-owned sugarcane plantations.
Mitr Phol, Thailand’s biggest sugar producer, pulled out of Cambodia two years ago amid the controversy, but the government has resisted the evictees’ calls to let them reclaim the land.
“In case it is found that people who come to protest are not personally affected by a sugarcane plantation economic land concession, the Royal Government of Cambodia will take measures against those people following the law,” the Commerce Ministry statement says.
It does not elaborate on what the measures will be or explain what laws would justify them. The ministry could not be reached for comment.
Sam Chankea, spokesman for rights group Adhoc, said people had the right to join any protest so long as they were not trying to deceive anyone for personal gain.
Before taking legal action against anyone protesting a cause without having a direct stake, he said, “the government should consider whether they are doing it for personal interest or the community’s interest.”
Eang Vuthy, director of Equitable Cambodia, a local NGO that helps evictees, said there was little doubt that the people protesting in Oddar Meanchey had genuine claims to the land in dispute.
“I’m not clear on their intentions,” he said of the ministry, “but this message to take legal action is intimidation.”
“If there is no solution, citizens have the right to express their opinions,” he added.
Oddar Meanchey governor Sar Thavy said the dispute was being handled by the Agriculture Ministry.
A spokesman for the ministry could not be reached on Sunday.
“They are really victims who have suffered from the land dispute. There is no one who protests who has not suffered,” said Huoy Mai, a representative of the Oddar Meanchey families.
“I think this is intimidation from authorities who don’t want us to protest. But we will not stop if there is no solution,” he added.