Land protesters from Poipet returned home Saturday aboard a convoy of taxis after spending nine months in Phnom Penh unsuccessfully lobbying the government for help.
But the group, who said their land has been unfairly confiscated for a casino project in Banteay Meanchey province, promised to return before next February’s commune elections to make their voices heard again.
Parliamentarians from the Sam Rainsy Party described the 272 farmers involved in the protest as “internal refugees” who had been victimized by “a local mafia of land speculators, casino operators, human traffickers and amphetamine producers” allegedly ruling their commune in northwest Cambodia.
The demonstrators spent the last day of their protest camped out across from the National Assembly, calling for compensation or return of their land they say was stolen from them by the government for sale to a Thai business building a casino complex.
The Poipet villagers say they were forcibly evicted after losing a court case over the title to the land.
They said this is unfair as they themselves did the forest-clearing work necessary to make the area usable.
“It is a waste of time to stay [in Phnom Penh] any longer. We have no money,” protester Chan Ty said. “But we will return just before the election. Maybe then [the politicians] will help us, so that we will vote for them. We will vote for anyone who helps us.”
Government officials have said the land legally belongs to the state and the land will be used for the Asean railroad, which will link Thailand and Cambodia.
The protesters’ cries have not gone completely unnoticed. King Norodom Sihanouk reportedly provided $20 for each family, while the US Embassy gave a lump-sum donation of $4,000. From the money provided, each demonstrator was able to receive $15 for the purchase of rice once they return to Poipet.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, whose party funded the demonstrators’ journey home, spoke to the Poipet villagers before their departure, vowing to visit their region personally.
“I know you are in very serious difficulty,” he said. “We will meet again.”
The Poipet villagers told Sam Rainsy of their frustrations, including the arrest of eight of their fellow demonstrators, one of whom is reportedly still in custody.
Nhek Ty, a 40-year-old Poipet native, said that the group had filed complaints over the alleged illegal seizure of their land but that the local government “responded by pushing us around. I am scared to go back.”
The Poipet case is the latest in a series of disputes stemming from Cambodia’s lack of laws governing the ownership of land. A land law is pending in the National Assembly, but has not been scheduled for discussion as it is still being reviewed by a government commission.