Ratanakkiri province villagers embroiled in a land dispute involving Keat Kolney, Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister, were blocked Sunday from handing a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen seeking his help in the case, a villager representative said.
Sev Kem, who represents the 12 Jarai minority villagers from O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune, said police and bodyguards prevented her from handing the petition to Hun Sen while he spoke at a groundbreaking ceremony in the provincial capital of Banlung.
Sev Kem said she was seated on the front row, and was told to step back when she tried to approach Hun Sen for help getting the disputed land back. The other 11 villagers were prevented from entering the ceremony altogether, she said.
A bodyguard to Hun Sen ac-
cepted the document after the speech, saying he would pass it to the prime minister, Sev Kem said.
“I am sad that we could not present the petition to Samdech [Hun Sen],” she added.
On Jan 23, the villagers, represented by lawyers from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID-funded Community Legal Education Center, filed a complaint at the provincial court seeking legal action against Keat Kolney and seven others for allegedly obtaining their land illegally in August 2004.
Im Sam Ath, a representative of Keat Kolney, declined comment on Sunday; he has previously dismissed the allegations and said the land sale was legal.
Hor Ang, deputy provincial police chief, said Sunday that allowing villagers to present the petition would have caused public disorder and created a security risk.
Hun Sen said in April 2005 that any government official implicated in grabbing forested land would be fired and sent to court, and warned in December that year that land grabbing could spark a “farmer revolution.”
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that Hun Sen’s warning remains valid. But he added that Keat Kolney’s case is unconnected to the government and is a matter for the court to decide.
“Many villagers filed a complaint but it doesn’t mean that the complaint is right. NGOs incited them to file a complaint,” he claimed.
CLEC public affairs officer Thy Bunthoeun denied the allegation, saying the villagers themselves wanted to take legal action, although CLEC helped them.