Phnom Penh Sugar denies relation to lawsuits over roadside land
A little over a year ago when machinery from CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company rolled in to start work on a plantation in Kompong Speu province, villagers made a show of solidarity in joining forces to oppose the clearing of their land.
After their pleas to meet with a company representative went unanswered, the villagers, at this point irate, proceeded to torch two makeshift shelters belonging to the company.
The following day on March 19, 2010, 600 villagers came out again to protest.
Similar incidents have since been commonplace, and protests still continue to this day in the land dispute with Mr Yong Phat’s sugar company, which together with his wife’s concession, totals almost 20,000 hectares in Thpong and Oral districts.
Since February 2010, there have been 94 protests, according to human rights group Adhoc.
In August, after months of confrontational protest and road blockages, the government decided to grant villagers parcels of land either side of Road 52. In April, Mr Yong Phat’s concession had been reduced from 9,393 to 8,343 hectares to prevent overlap with villagers’ land.
But company clearances have not ceased.
Villagers and human rights groups say Phnom Penh Sugar is still trying to get its hands on villagers’ land—a roughly 20-km zone that extends for 200 meters on either side of Road 52 in Thpong district—by accusing villagers of encroachment and by using RCAF troops and local authorities to file complaints to the court on its behalf.
“The company has changed its tactics,” said Ouch Leng, a land rights monitor for Adhoc.
According to Mr Leng, since late August there have been 14 court cases against villagers living along national Road 52, all of whom have been sued for alleged land encroachment.
“We’ve never met or seen the plaintiffs. Instead, we have only seen the company representative and lawyers appear at the court and attend the court hearing,” Mr Leng said. “There are suspicions concerning the absent plaintiffs. We suspect the names of the plaintiffs are made up to sue the villagers.”
On Tuesday, 60-year-old Chhoun Chuon was summoned to the provincial court for a hearing after being accused by an RCAF soldier of land encroachment. But in the court, there was no sign of RCAF soldier Nget Sarun.
Chheang Kim Sun, a representative from Mr Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Co, was present at the court, though she has denied the existence of any link with her company.
Under both civil and criminal law, the plaintiff has no obligation to make an appearance in court and may appoint a representative to do so, said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project.
Ms Kim Sun said yesterday that Phnom Penh Sugar Company was not the mastermind behind a plot to oust villagers from their land by using third parties to file lawsuits.
“Our company always complies with the law. We never incite or stand behind someone to sue the villagers,” she said. “Our company has never filed a complaint against villagers living along national road 52.”
Ms Kim Sun said a legitimate landowner with supporting documents had filed any active lawsuit against villagers in the area. She added that since early last year Phnom Penh Sugar had employed thousands of locals, more than 200 families have been relocated and 10 other families living close to the road have sold their land to the company.
Heng Poung, a lawyer with seven clients with complaints against villagers in Omlaing commune, said that only two of his clients were soldiers and none had links to Phnom Penh Sugar.
“The lawsuits have nothing to do with the sugar company,” he said, adding that all of his clients would have their cases heard by the court over the next three months.
While court cases mount up against villagers on land that was once part of Mr Yong Phat’s concession, he is busy exporting duty-free sugar to the European Union. Under the EU’s Anything But Arms trade scheme, Cambodian sugar firms have exported thousands of tons of sugar to Europe, though human rights activists say the deal is little more than a subsidy for land grabbing.
Those who stand accused, meanwhile, say they cannot escape the feeling that Mr Yong Phat’s firm is behind the recent bout of court cases.
“I believe the sugar company owned by Oknha Ly Yong Phat is standing behind the lawsuit against me,” said Mr Chuon, who stood trial on Tuesday. “I dare say this because at some time in August last year employees from the sugar company visited me and asked me to sell my land.”
Prior to the arrival of Phnom Penh Sugar, he said, no officials or third parties had turned up asking him to sell his land or move on.
Meas Nhen, 43, another villager in Omlaing commune with a lawsuit against her, said he did not know who the plaintiff was and that employees of Phnom Penh Sugar had also turned up at his house last year to offer $500 for him to leave.
“I don’t know what is the real purpose of the sugar company because the government granted 200 meters either side of the road for villagers to live,” he said. “But this sugar company is trying its best to kick us out of our land.”