The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on Saturday charged an ethnic Kreung man with destruction of private property for allegedly setting fire to a wood pile belonging to a businessman whom locals accuse of buying their land but failing to pay them.
Deputy prosecutor Morm Vanda said that Haing Noeu, 50, led a group of about 50 fellow Kreung villagers to the site on Friday and set fire to a pile of wood that had been collected to construct an office building on the disputed land.
“We already charged him with destroying someone else’s property…and he is now in pretrial detention at the provincial prison,” Mr. Vanda said.
Provincial deputy police chief Chea Bunthoeun said Mr. Noeu was arrested on Friday for allegedly leading the group that committed the arson but declined to comment on the land dispute.
Daing Ngan, one of the villagers that went to the site of the alleged crime on Friday, said the villagers sold about 400 hectares of their land to a businessman named Seng Visith in 2007 for a planned rubber plantation, but had yet to be paid the $20,000 they were promised.
He said the villagers went to the land on Friday when they noticed that people were clearing the area for the first time, and confirmed that he and Mr. Noeu was among about 10 men who set fire to the wood pile when the workers refused to stop clearing the land.
“We burned the timber because the villagers were angry with the company because they did not listen to us to stop clearing the land,” he said.
Mr. Ngan said the villagers signed an agreement with Mr. Visith for the land sale but had not kept a copy of the document for themselves, and that Mr. Visith had then sold the land off to a woman named Ly Sok Nim just last month.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said he received a formal complaint from the villagers on Friday.
“The villagers gave their thumbprint [signatures] when they sold the land to Mr. Visith for $20,000, but he has not paid anything,” Mr. Thy said.
Neither Mr. Visith nor Ms. Sok Nim could be reached for comment.