An association representing the interests of ethnic minorities in Ratanakkiri province is under police investigation following a peaceful demonstration by villagers against the proposed sale of land to a private company in O’Yadaw district.
The Highlander’s Association is being investigated for involvement in a March 4 protest when hundreds of villagers gathered as provincial officials and representatives from the Men Sarun company visited Ten village in Yatung commune to assess the location of a 20,000-hectare concession.
Frightened by the villagers’ hostile response to their plans for a rubber plantation, the provincial and company officials retreated to the provincial capital Banlung.
“The provincial authorities want the association closed,” a member of the association said Tuesday.
Ratanakkiri Deputy Governor Bou Lam warned the association on Sunday that it will face closure if authorities find it has been operating without permission from the Interior Ministry.
“If there is no law permitting [the Highlander’s Association] it will be shut down,” said the member, who requested anonymity for security concerns.
Formed in 2000 as an advocacy group for the preservation of ethnic minority culture, tradition and natural resources, the Highlander’s Association has been particularly active in promoting minority land rights.
Bou Lam could not be contacted, but Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun confirmed on Tuesday that the association was under investigation for its role in organizing the villagers’ protest.
“I ordered an investigation and a report to be sent to the government,” Kham Khoeun said. “If the [protest] was a criminal one, I will lodge a complaint with the court.”
Chea Bunthoeun, provincial police deputy chief, said Tuesday that the investigation was focusing on the organization’s membership and the legal basis for it operation.
Though the March 4 protest did not amount to much—the villagers did not chant slogans or demonstrate other visual form of protest—“there must have been instigators involved,” Chea Bunthoeun said.
Heng Bunthan, O’Yadaw district governor, said Monday that the villagers in Yatung commune have now ceased any hostility toward the Men Srun concession.
An agreement was reached with 20 local village representatives, he said.
But Puoy Loy, an opposition party commune chief in Yatung’s neighboring Som Thom commune, said on Monday that there was still resentment among locals to the proposed plantation.
Puoy Loy also denied the Highlander’s Association was involved in the protest and noted that many NGOs were helping to educate local minority communities about their land rights.
The protest was organized by locals “because they are very concerned that their younger generations will not be able to make a living from their traditional ways. That’s why they want to keep the land away from private ownership,” he said.