Authorities in Kompong Speu province yesterday stopped about 200 local residents from driving to Phnom Penh to petition Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet over sugarcane plantations they say stole their land, telling the petitioners they were increasing security because the premier was traveling in the area.
The group had planned to meet in Phnom Penh with similarly aggrieved residents of Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces to ask Mr. Hun Sen to sign off on a comprehensive plan the government has been negotiating with the E.U.—which imports Cambodian sugar—to fairly compensate them.
Soeung Sokhom, one of the petitioners, said police stopped their convoy of 11 vans twice along the road from Oral district, but they drove on, the second time cutting through a sugarcane plantation. They were stopped for good by movable metal barricades in Thpong district.
“The police threatened to use violence if we did not listen to them,” Mr. Sokhom said.
He said Oral district governor Muong Thy agreed to let them make the trip on Tuesday, but changed his mind yesterday morning. The police who stopped them said they were ramping up security for Mr. Hun Sen, who was in the province for a meeting with government employees.
“I think the authorities restrict the freedom of the people because they do not act according to the law,” Mr. Sokhom said. The petitioners “have the right to protest to demand a solution because they are facing injustice,” he said.
Cheang Poy, one of the drivers, said he was threatened with arrest.
“The police ordered me not to transport the people to Phnom Penh to protest and they threatened to arrest me if I went without permission,” he said.
Mr. Thy, the governor, conceded that the petitioners were not breaking any laws, but claimed they had agreed to send only 20 people to Phnom Penh in one van.
“We stopped those people because they did not keep their promise,” he said yesterday.
“It’s not the law, but this agreement was made between a group of people and the authorities, so they must keep their promise,” said the governor,
who grew irate and hung up. Thpong district police chief Hun Sok Hon denied that his officers threatened to arrest anyone and said they were stopping all vehicles, not only the convoy.
“We just stopped the cars to make public order for the delegation of Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “We have the right to stop those cars because we are the authority.”
Mr. Sokhom said he and three others from the group eventually made it to Phnom Penh after returning home to get their motorbikes. He said they met more than 50 others from Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey at Wat Botum Park, where they gave their petition to a representative of the premier’s cabinet.
When the same group came to Phnom Penh in February to deliver a similar petition, Pal Chandara, an official in Mr. Hun Sen’s cabinet, said the request was passed on to the Land Management Ministry.
Yesterday, Mr. Chandara said the group’s new petition would end up in the same place.
Once the ministry is finished reviewing it, he said, it will send the prime minister a report and make a request “for a decision.”
Thousands of families say they have had homes and farms stolen by the country’ sugarcane plantations and have appealed to the Land Management Ministry several times over the years.
The plan, or “terms of reference,” they want Mr. Hun Sen to sign are designed to ensure that their claims for compensation are fairly audited. The E.U. started negotiating the terms with an inter-ministerial committee more than three years ago and says the Cambodian government has been sitting on them since October 2015.