Kompong Speu Provincial Court yesterday charged and detained two villagers for their alleged roles as ringleaders in violence that erupted last week over a long-running land dispute involving companies owned by businessman and CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, a court official said.
You Thou and Khem Vuthy were detained and charged over Thursday’s torching of two makeshift shelters in Omlaing commune that belonged to companies owned by Mr Yong Phat and his wife, according to Judge Keo Mony, who is investigating the matter.
The two men were charged with incitement, colluding to set the structures on fire and colluding to ignite violence, Judge Mony said, citing as evidence their “obvious crimes and other basic reasons.” He declined to elaborate.
The two were among five who were summoned to the court for questioning yesterday. The fifth summoned man, Chin Sarom, had yet to surface, said Judge Mony, adding that he will question the two others, Dol Leang and Sar Than, at an unspecified later date. He did not explain why they were not questioned yesterday.
Omlaing commune residents began gathering to protest at the courthouse yesterday morning and numbered in the hundreds by noon, when Mr Thou and Mr Vuthy were led away to the provincial prison.
Supporters of the men claimed the two were not present at the site of Thursday’s fire or on Friday, when a crowd of more than 600 stopped bulldozers from clearing any more land for a 10,000-hectare agricultural concession granted to Mr Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company.
“When angry villagers burned down the makeshift [structures], they were not at the scene,” said protester Un Neang. He added that the men were also absent from Friday’s demonstration.
“I knew in advance that the court would arrest and detain them, which is why we are here,” Mr Neang said.
Yin Savat, a lawyer representing Khem Vuthy, Dol Leang and Sar Than, said his clients are innocent and that the decision to jail Mr Vuthy was “absolutely unjust.”
“There has not been enough of an investigation,” said Mr Savat, who is from the Community Legal Education Center. “The decision to detain my client is just based on the allegation made by the plaintiff,” he said.
The villagers in Omlaing stand to lose between 1,000 to 2,000 hectares to Mr Yong Phat’s agricultural concession, according to Roth Thavy, a provincial investigator for local rights group Adhoc. They have already turned down a compensation offer of $200 per hectare of their land if they use it to grow rice, and $100 per hectare if it used as rotational farmland, he said.
Now the villagers are being intimidated, he added.
“The charges and detentions are aimed at discouraging and intimidating villagers from protesting against the company,” Mr Thavy said.
Mr Thavy also claimed the villagers were roused to violent protest because the Phnom Penh Sugar Company started clearing their land without first reaching an agreement with affected families.
“The company provoked and insulted the villagers,” he said.
Mr Yong Phat said yesterday that he is inclined to be lenient with the arrested men, saying he would help them get released if they stop inciting violence.
“I only sued the ringleaders, not the villagers,” he said. “If the ringleaders promise and swear not to incite and cause other violence, I will manage to help them get released.”
Mr Yong Phat added that the government has already approved his 10,000-hectare Phnom Penh Sugar Company plantation. Next door there is a 10,000-hectare plantation owned by his wife’s Kompong Speu Sugar Company.
Hundreds of RCAF soldiers have descended on the concession area since the series of confrontations last week, according to Adhoc rights workers.
About 30 soldiers from RCAF’s 313th Battalion have been deployed to Omlaing commune, according to Mr Yong Phat.
The battalion is one of the military units officially sponsored by the senator in a patronage system involving dozens of private companies and military units, according to a Feb 22 document signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The system was launched by the government late last month.
The British organization Global Witness denounced the government’s pairing of companies and military units in a March 5 statement that warned the system would effectively institutionalize the practice of renting the armed forces for business uses.
“The donor community has collectively poured billions into the restoration of peace and democracy in Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge,” the statement said. “Surely they are not going to stand by and allow this to be undercut by a policy of selling off the armed forces to private business interests? This is tantamount to sanctioning a mercenary force.”
The government fired back two days later in a statement from Hor Nambora, the Cambodian ambassador to the UK.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia is warning the international pressure group, Global Witness, to stop meddling in the country’s internal affairs,” Mr Nambora said in the statement, which threatens the group with possible legal action.
“Private funding of the military” was necessary to modernize the armed forces, Mr Nambora said. “This was particularly important in the light of recent tension and border incidents involving neighboring Thailand.”
The Global Witness statement is not the first time that 313th Battalion and the UK group have crossed paths.
A 2004 Global Witness report singles out the battalion for taking part in Cambodia’s illegal timber trade.
Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
According to the government memo launching the pairing of business and military units, private firms are encouraged to provide their “sister” Royal Army units with visits of encouragement and as well as food, medicine, tools, farm equipment, cattle, seeds, wells, and means of transport, and shelter.
The memo stated that the new program will “solve the dire situation of the armed forces, police, military police and their families through a culture of sharing.”
(Additional reporting by Clancy McGilligan)