Officials Flee Land Survey Amid Protest

Government officials and business representatives retreated from an attempted survey of a land concession in Ratanakkiri prov­ince on Friday, after hundreds of angry villagers turned out to protest against them, accusing them of land grabbing, Adhoc and provincial authorities said Monday.

Officials from the Ministry of Ag­riculture and the Ministry of En­vironment, along with representatives from the Men Sarun company, returned to the provincial capital of Banlung from O’Yadaw district’s Yatung commune, following the protest, Heng Bunthan, O’Yadaw district governor said.

Pen Bonnar, Adhoc monitor, said 145 villagers took part.

The officials visited the commune to assess the jungle’s potential for being cut down to make way for a rubber plantation, Heng Bunthan said.

“The villagers do not understand the policy, and they were angry and protested, saying the company wants to take their land,” Heng Bunthan said.

US-based NGO Human Rights Watch is following the situation closely, an official said Monday.

Men Sarun has encountered problems in Ratanakkiri in the past, when it failed to consult and collaborate with local villagers, the Rights Watch official said.

In 1996, the firm made a failed and controversial attempt to develop 20,000 hectares of oil palm plantation by clearing farm land belonging to ethnic minority groups in O’Yadaw district, the official said.

“We would have hoped that [Men Sarun and the local government] would have learned from that experience to be transparent from the very beginning,” the Rights Watch official said.

“We’re concerned about the possible loss of land and forest on which the local people depend for their livelihoods.”

The concession is 20,000 hectares in size, said Lay Y Pisith, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Defense and shareholder in Men Sarun, who was present during the incident.

Puoy Loy, Som Thom commune chief charged that Men Sarun wants to take land from villagers in Yatung, as well as in Som Thom and Pak Nhai communes.

“Whenever they come, the villagers will protest,” he said. “They cannot live without the land.”

Lay Y Pisith denied trying to take land from the villagers, saying he was there to see whether a Vietnamese firm had encroached on land from Men Sarun’s concession.

“The protesters were not really angry with my company, but they confused [it] with [the Vietnamese firm], which took over land along the border,” he said.

He added that he feared the Vietnamese firm in question was cooperating with another faction of the Cambodian military to obtain border land.

The Vietnamese government is not behind establishing land concessions in the province, Nguyen Thanh Duc, Vietnamese Embassy spokesman said on Monday.

Dararith Mey, a marketing official with Men Sarun, said the Cambodian government is distributing new land in Ratanakkiri to the firm, but only land unused by villagers.

A rubber plantation on the land close to the border would help create jobs for the local villagers, he added.

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