The Thai owners of a pair of sugar plantations in Koh Kong province accused of forcing hundreds of farmers off their land will give the land back if it can be proved that those evicted legally own the land, rights workers and a village representative said on Sunday.
Thanakorn Borintarachat, the new general manager of Koh Kong Sugar, whose major shareholder is Thailand’s Khon Kaen Sugar, reportedly made the offer at a March 29 meeting in Koh Kong with NGOs and local families.
Mr. Thanakorn hung up on a reporter on Sunday and declined to comment when contacted.
The NGO Forum, the Community Legal Education Center and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) hosted the meeting where Mr. Thanakorn reportedly agreed to hand the land back and issued a joint statement on Friday welcoming the news.
“It was encouraging to see that the general manager of Koh Kong Sugar Industries Co. Ltd. recognizes the urgent need to resolve these land conflicts in a peaceful way,” said CCHR president Ou Virak.
“If the company does indeed return the disputed land to the Koh Kong villagers as he has pledged to do, his actions will set a very important example to other companies investing in the region.”
If and when that may happen, however, remains unclear.
According to the NGOs’ account of the meeting, Mr. Thanakorn said Koh Kong Sugar would return any land that the families legally owned, something the firm has yet to officially acknowledge. Mr. Thanakorn also reportedly insisted that the government compensate the firm for any land it has already paid for and ends up giving back.
An Haya, a representative of the evicted families who attended the meeting, confirmed the offer but doubted the firm would follow through.
“I don’t believe it because they just promised in the meeting,” he said. “I just got the information from the general manager in Koh Kong, but the general manager in Thailand has not yet confirmed it.”
In addition to their land back, Mr. Haya said the families also want compensation for the multiple harvests they have lost on the disputed 1,364 hectares. If those demands are not met, the families are requesting compensation of $5,000 per hectare, a figure that would set the firm back $6,820,000.
The dispute dates back to 2006, when Koh Kong Sugar and Koh Kong Plantation, both majority owned by Khon Kaen, started forcing families out of their homes and off the land. Both the families and local rights groups insist the families’ farms and homes were taken over illegally, and claim that some of the families were shot and beaten by plantation guards in the process.
Khon Kaen is currently under investigation by Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission for its alleged human rights violations in Koh Kong
In July, the commission issued a preliminary report stating the firm was responsible for violating the families’ “right to life and self determination.”
Last month, the families also filed a lawsuit in London against Tate & Lyle, the U.K. firm that signed a five-year deal with Khon Kaen in 2009 to buy its Cambodian sugar, asking for millions in damages.