Hill Tribe Group Investigated Over Protest

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.



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