More than 100 ethnic minority villagers in Kratie province protested December 25 and 26 at the provincial governor’s office demanding recompense for the destruction of a traditional hilltribe forest cemetery by a private rubber company.
The protests are the latest action taken by the villagers from Kratie district’s Chang Krang commune who have protested for months against the government’s granting of 623 hectares of land to the Harmony Plantation Co Ltd.
The villagers claim the land granted to the firm is part of their ancestral farmlands and includes the forest graves of their ancestors.
Ouch Leng, a land dispute monitor with local rights group Adhoc, said the villagers rallied after a notice was sent to five community leaders asking that they attend a meeting to discuss financial compensation for the damage inflicted to the graves in late November, and the ongoing dispute over the 623 hectares.
The minority villagers are seeking more than $2,000 in order to hold a ceremony and make sacrificial offerings to appease the spirits of those whose graves have been violated, Ouch Leng said.
Village representative Koy Klouk said he and his neighbors feel there is only safety in numbers when it comes to negotiating with officials and the company over the land dispute. “The people fear that the authorities will arrest [their] representatives so they don’t allow us come alone, and they decided to come all together,” he said.
Kratie Provincial Cabinet Chief Chen Hongsry said the appearance of more than 100 villagers, when only five were called for talks, made it impossible for a meeting to proceed on Friday. “The company has accidentally cleared their ancestor’s graves,” Chen Hongsry confirmed. “The company wants to make them an apology, and pay the expenses of holding a ceremony for their ancestors…. [The villagers] said they need a water buffalo, a cow, seven pigs, seven chickens, seven ducks, seven jars of wine, and two sets of tradition musical instruments,” he said.
Chen Hongsry said the company would like the villagers to lower their estimated cost of $2,000 for the ceremony.
Koy Klouk said the cost of the event was estimated by village elders, who have warned that the spirits of the six damaged graves must be put to rest or relatives of the deceased who still live in the area will suffer illness and misfortune.
The spirits may also require an apology from the rubber company that is clearing the land, Koy Klouk said.
“We might have to ask the driver of the [excavator] who hit the graves to come and apologize for their activities against our ancestors,” he said.