Despite recent confrontations in Mondolkiri province between Phnong minority villagers and Chinese pulpwood firm Wuzhishan LS Group, King Norodom Sihamoni is scheduled to celebrate national Forestry Day in the province, an official confirmed Monday.
News of the King’s planned visit on Saturday emerged as minority villagers warned of more protests against the Wuzhishan concession and as provincial authorities said they were searching for those inciting the protesters.
“[King Sihamoni] wants to meet his children throughout the country,” a Royal Cabinet official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Monday. “He needs to witness the living conditions of his people. Particularly, he wants to encourage his people to be active in taking care of the forest,” the palace official added.
The official did not say whether the Mondolkiri trip was related to the province’s high profile land dispute, which Governor Thou Son has blamed on instigators.
“I am talking with provincial police to find a way to take measures against the ones who incite [Phnong] minority members,” Thou Son said Monday.
“I believe strongly that there are ringleaders. Otherwise those ethnic minority members, the majority of which are poorly educated, would not lead the protest and create the blockades,” he said.
Last month, about 800 Phnong hilltribe members demonstrated in front of the Chinese company’s headquarters in the provincial capital, Sen Monorom, claiming that the company had encroached on their traditional farmland and desecrated spirit forests and forest cemeteries.
Police dispersed the protesters with water hoses.
Soon after, villagers in O’Reang district erected roadblocks to keep the Chinese company and its workers out. The protesters expressed frustration that the company had continued to plant pine trees even after the Council of Ministers and Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered work at the Mondolkiri concession suspended.
Phnong villagers said Sunday that they are planning even bigger demonstrations because the company continues to plant trees and clear land despite the suspension order.
“The second protest will be bigger than the first one because villagers are really angry the company still violates orders from Phnom Penh and provincial governors,” Dak Dam commune villager Phlang Yoeuk said.
He dismissed allegations that others were inciting the villagers to protest.
Over the weekend, Wuzhishan company workers were moved farther back into the forest and were planting what appeared to be a buffer zone of trees around different sites, Lionel Rosenblatt of Refugees International said Monday.
“Work was still continuing,” Rosenblatt said, though he didn’t know if pine trees were being planted as well.
He said local villagers are angry and view the company as a foreign invader because the company refuses to communicate with them in anything but Chinese and local government officials have refused to help mediate a solution.
“Whenever they try to state their case, they have been thrown directly into the claws and teeth of a massive Chinese company,” Rosenblatt said.
“When did Mondolkiri become a province of China? It’s this foreign grip on their village that is making them concerned, angry…. The potential for demonstrations and possibly violence is very high,” he added.
Welcoming the King’s visit, Rosenblatt said it would give the government an opportunity to strongly enforce its suspension order.
Thou Son said he has ordered the province’s agriculture department to watch the concession to ensure work had ended.
He said a committee will be set up to investigate the allegations of land encroachment by the company and to verify the concession’s borders.
“The committee will start working very soon to study the scale of the affected area,” Thou Son said.
Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun could not be reached for comment Monday while Chan Tong Yves, Agriculture Ministry secretary of state, said he did not know anything about the committee except that he had heard the Interior Ministry was involved.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he was also unaware of the committee.
King Sihamoni’s visit to Mondolkiri to mark Forestry Day follows his interest earlier this year in a massive land concession in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang province.
The King sent a letter to Hun Sen at the time asking for more information on the Pheapimex concession after receiving numerous complaints from villagers in the two affected provinces.