In the latest standoff in a long-running and sporadically violent land dispute between Kompong Speu villagers and CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, at least one farmer’s home was destroyed Sunday, villagers and a local rights group said Monday.
The protesting villagers also accused the firm of using company-affiliated armed forces to prevent them from farming their rice fields, according to villager San Thou, 41.
Mr Yong Phat’s firm has been granted a 10,000-hectare concession in Omlaing commune next to where his wife was also granted a 10,000-hectare concession. Soldiers from RCAF’s Brigade 313, which Mr Yong Phat sponsors financially, were sent to the site after protesters burned down two makeshift shelters in March.
As Mr Thou described it Monday, the latest standoff began when the company’s cranes and bulldozers demolished a villager’s home Sunday. A neighbor became agitated and threatened the demolition team with bottles of gasoline, which were briefly confiscated by soldiers and military police.
Villager Vath Pao, 35, said both military police and RCAF soldiers had approached him and a dozen other farmers as they farmed their rice paddies Monday, preventing them from plowing their fields.
“It is really unjust that this powerful land grabber is preventing villagers who are legal landowners from planting crops on their property,” he said.
A land census by commune officials is proceeding despite the fact that the villagers affected by the land concession have declined to participate, Mr Pao added.
Omlaing commune chief Hap Dam said Monday that the land measurements were being made in order to determine the total amount of land affected by the concession, and that demarcation work would be completed this week.
Chan Soveth, coordinator for Adhoc’s Human Rights Monitoring Program, who visited the site on Sunday, said more RCAF soldiers and military police have been deployed to the area.
“It is very sad that the military police, soldiers and cops wearing a uniform…are getting paid by the firm to hurt people,” Mr Soveth said.
Civil society groups are concerned about the possibility of more violence erupting in the area, Mr Soveth added.
Company representative Chheang Kim Sun confirmed Monday that multiple forces had been sent to protect the firm’s machinery following what she claimed were indications that villagers intended to protest violently.
“Of course we asked them to protect us,” she said of the soldiers and military police deployed to the concession.
But Ms Kim Sun added that the firm still hoped to solve the dispute peacefully by offering farmers a $200 buyout for each hectare of affected farmland.
“We are a legal firm that has been granted legal rights for development through a concession for a sugar-cane plantation,” she added.
Local rights group Licadho released a report this month claiming that the use of military police by government-affiliated companies to forcibly evict villagers was on the rise, leaving more than 2,500 families at risk of losing their homes or livelihoods during the first quarter of the year.
Of the land-grabbing cases reported to Licadho during the first three months of this year, 25 percent involved use of “sponsored military police units to threaten, intimidate and arrest land activists and community representatives involved in land disputes and to prevent peaceful demonstrations by villagers,” the report said.