Lawmakers Call for Talks Over Lor Peang Land

The National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee has laid out its plan to mediate negations to settle a more than decade-long land dispute between villagers and a powerful development company in Kompong Chhnang province’s Lor Peang village.

The bipartisan committee announced early this month that it would intervene to settle the conflict over land that was purchased in 2002 by KDC International, a company owned by Chea Kheng, the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem.

For years, the provincial court has failed to adjudicate the dispute and Ms. Kheng’s firm has used various means to try to pressure villagers into taking compensation packages that they say are far less than what their land is worth.

But with only 17 of about 80 families involved in the initial dispute still holding out, KDC sent in workers in July to start constructing a fence around the contested land. Since then, five men who joined protests against the construction have been imprisoned and released for alleged violence against the workers during clashes in July.

CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said Friday that the Human Rights Committee, which he chairs, will attempt to resolve the dispute in three stages, first with the 17 families who have remained defiant since 2007, when KDC first started preventing them from farming the land that they have depended on for decades.

“At the meeting with five representatives from Lor Peang village…the lawmakers on the commission for human rights gave two options to the villagers to choose: Keep battling through the judiciary or negotiate,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.

If they chose the courts, he said, the case could continue to drag on, an opinion shared by local rights groups Adhoc and Licadho, who joined Friday’ meeting.

“The commission and civil society think it would definitely take several more years to reach a final decision on who wins or loses through the court,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.

Villager representative Reach Seima, who attended the meeting, said they had agreed to negotiations beginning with the 17 holdout families.

He said those talks would set a precedent for how to compensate another 23 families who have filed complaints against KDC’s development project in the area.

“We are exhausted from battling in the court so we agreed to settle through negotiations, but it must be done with fairness,” Mr. Seima said.

“It means the villagers will agree to accept a specific and decent amount without force or intimidation.”

Also Friday, the five men who were imprisoned over clashes with the KDC workers led a march in Phnom Penh to petition the Ministry of Justice and Appeal Court to take action over decisions made by the Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court.

Seang Heng, one of the five men who were all released on bail on August 29, said that he wanted to see the Justice Ministry punish provincial prosecutors and judges for what he said was the group’s unlawful imprisonment.

“We filed a petition against the court prosecutor and investigating judge because they decided to imprison five men without carrying out a proper investigation,” Mr. Heng said.

He said that he did not believe the protest would interfere with the ongoing efforts to bring an end to the quarrel.

Am Sam Ath, technical advisor for Licadho, said it was in the best interests of the villagers and KDC to see the row resolved.

“It is a chronic land dispute in which a number of villagers have been charged and imprisoned while the company’s reputation has also been spoiled,” he said.

“After the meeting with the two sides, we understood that they both wanted a negotiation so we are waiting to see what [land valuation] formula the villagers will be asking for.”

[email protected]

© 2014, All rights reserved.