The provincial commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) in Kompong Chhnang province has denied that any of his soldiers are working for the KDC Company, a well-connected agro-industry firm embroiled in a long-running land dispute with villagers in Kompong Tralach district.
Local police said on Monday that three RCAF soldiers working for KDC had filed a complaint against three villagers who they say on Saturday torched a wooden shelter where they were stationed on the disputed land.
Villagers confirmed that the hut had been set on fire—and which they say was built in March when KDC stationed soldiers there to protect the company’s interests—after the soldiers had accompanied unidentified men to the area to start measuring the land for demarcation over the weekend.
Brigadier General Chhou Chan Doeun, commander of the provincial RCAF division, said none of his soldiers had ever been stationed at the disputed land.
“Those who stay at the shelter are company workers. We have never deployed our soldiers there to protect the company’s interests,” he said, adding that his troops had never been “sponsored” by KDC.
Licadho and Human Rights Watch have for years said that state military forces have been used to protect the interests of private companies and powerful landowners.
RCAF district commander Major Mao Heng echoed Brig. Gen. Chan Doeun’s comments, saying that his soldiers had not filed a complaint with police over the arson, even though he admitted that troops had been to visit the disputed land on Saturday.
“They just dropped by to visit old friends,” he said referring to the KDC workers he said were actually stationed at the shelter.
“No soldiers from my unit filed any complaints with police,” Maj. Heng said, adding that perhaps people disguised as soldiers had filed the complaint, as military uniforms were sold at many markets in the country. He also said that he believed one of the uniformed men stationed at the KDC shelter was ex-RCAF, which could also be reason for confusion of military involvement in the land dispute.
However, Ta Ches commune police chief Chuop Chanthoeun stuck by his earlier comments that three official RCAF soldiers who guarded the private company’s land had filed a complaint with his office over the burned shelter and the property they lost in the blaze.
“Today, district penal police cooperated with commune police to investigate the site,” the police chief added, refusing to name the three soldiers who had filed the complaint. No arrests have yet been made.
Reach Seima, a villager representative, said villagers believed the soldiers working for KDC were actual RCAF troops. KDC is owned by the wife of Industry Minister Suy Sem.
“The company is owned by a powerful lady whose husband is a senior CPP official and she is very powerful,” Mr. Seima said.
Officials from KDC could not be contacted for comment.
A total of 51 families in Tralach district’s Ta Ches commune have been locked in the dispute with KDC over a combined 145 hectares of land since 2007.