More Officials Say ‘Secession’ Leaders Were Given ‘Donations’

Local officials yesterday provided more information on how two men once accused of leading a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province’s Broma village received land and construction materials from the government prior to testifying that popular radio station owner Mam Sonando incited them to rebellion during a joint trial in October.

Ma Chhang, 47, and Khat Saroeun, 42, along with five other defendants who testified against Mr. Sonando—who was jailed for 20 years on charges of encouraging the alleged insurrection—had their sentences suspended and were freed by the court.

Khuon Khoeun, chief of Chhlong district’s Kompong Damrey commune, said that upon returning to Broma village after government forces evicted hundreds of families and razed many of their homes, Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun received preferential assistance to rebuild their homes.

“Of course, we gave them land and some construction materials, such as wood and zinc for roofs,” said Mr. Khoeun.

“They have both been given many donations by various people, including government officials,” he said, adding only that the men received the “donations” upon returning to the village and declined to elaborate further.

Commune clerk Khin Duong said yesterday that Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun moved back to the village in August, at which time the government helped them and 30 other returning families beginning the process of applying for land titles. “They used to live…in Broma village illegally. So after the operation, the government [helped them]…change their status from illegal to legal ownership of land,” Mr. Duong said.

“Local authorities treated them and other former evictees well, because they were victims used by [secessionist] masterminds,” he added.

Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun, however, were initially named as “anarchy masterminds” by the Ministry of Interior in May. In June, Prime Minister Hun Sen offered the men amnesty in exchange for becoming “witnesses” in the case.

Neighbors of Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun say the two men have built large houses with the money and building materials provided to them by the government, and are living on plots of land as large as 20 hectares.

“Although their homes are not luxury villas, their [new] wooden houses are well constructed and twice or three times as large as any of the other former evictees,” said one villager, who declined to be named for fear of retribution.

“Both Ma Chhang and Khat Saroeun have been treated very differently from ordinary villagers,” said another villager, who also declined to be named.

“Since they provided testimony against Mr. Sonando, they have lived on wealth provided by [government] authorities. I’m not jealous…but it is injustice that the two men gave testimony to manipulate innocent people such as Mr. Sonando in exchange for wealth,” the villager said.

Last week, district governor Soum Sarith said that provincial authorities gave the two men cash and “other materials” to rebuild their homes.

On May 16, government security forces launched a massive operation to evict the Broma villagers, ostensibly to quell a rural uprising. The only casualty, however, was a 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, who was shot dead as she hid in her house.

The raid followed months of demonstrations by the villagers against the loss of their land to a rubber company in the area.

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