Residents of a social land concession in Preah Vihear province yesterday said their community had suffered extortion, abuse and even rape at the hands of the NGO that runs it, an outfit headed by a one-star general.
The Land Management Ministry said yesterday the NGO still lacked permission even to operate the concession.
When a resident of the concession–556 hectares in Choam Ksan district’s Kantuot commune–allegedly raped Khim Khon’s 13-year-old daughter last year, Ms Khon, a community resident, said NGO workers detained and beat her when they found out she planned to file a complained with local police.
“The organization official told me that the organization could solve the problem, that you should not complain to the police,” Ms Khon said yesterday during a press conference in Phnom Penh organized by the human rights organization Adhoc.
“But they released the offender and let him go free. They handcuffed me and detained my daughter for one night inside their office. They beat me with electric wire.”
Reached by telephone yesterday, Brigadier General Lim, who described himself as an adviser to Senate President Chea Sim, flatly denied each of Adhoc’s allegations, saying no one had suffered violence from his organization and that no one had been subjected to demands for money.
According to Adhoc, Brig Gen Lim established the concession a few years ago under the auspices of his NGO, which calls itself the Organization for Research and Curbing Drugs and AIDS, as a haven for the down and out. On television, Brig Gen Lim began promising a 30-by-50-meter plot for a home and two hectares of farmland for every family, said Adhoc chief investigator Ny Chakrya.
By 2008, some 1,200 families from across the country took up his offer but villagers yesterday said the promise gradually gave way to a very different reality. The two hectares never came, and NGO staff started demanding money for the housing plots and unspecified services that never came.
Kim Sophal, who moved to Saem from Phnom Penh in 2008, said some families ended up paying up to $500 to file applications that went nowhere and that most ended up leaving. He said only about 300 families remain.
“The people left one by one because they could not stand the bad actions of the organization and they had no food to eat,” he said.
Ms Khon, who tried reporting the alleged rape of her daughter, said NGO staff would not even allow residents to ask outsiders for food. When they found out she had gone begging for rice at the home of a nearby family, they took her to their office and allegedly beat her again, this time with sticks.
“This organization is very brutal,” she said.
Soum Kimhorn said his 19-year-old daughter was allegedly raped by an NGO employee in 2009 and that officials tried to scare him out of filing a complaint.
“I left the [concession] because I had been threatened and could not stand the bad behavior of the organization,” he said.
“These actions violate the authority of the local government,” said Mr Chakrya, the investigator. “The organization has no right to solve criminal cases, negotiate or silence cases that can proceed to court. This is breaking the law.”
Mr Chakrya said Adhoc had been investigating the NGO since villagers first complained to them in May. During a personal visit to the concession last week, he said NGO staff stopped his car on the way out to question him and ask whether he had asked for permission to come.
Mr Chakrya said he cleared his visit with deputy provincial governor Sar Thavy and that Mr Thavy promised to look into the allegations himself.
Mr Thavy said yesterday that Adhoc had informed him of its plans but denied agreeing to any investigation of his own. He said his staff would only look into the matter if the villagers filed their own complaint.
“They have the right to file a complaint, but they have never filed a complaint with us,” he said. “If they file an official complaint, we will go down to take action.”
Kantuot commune chief Moul Mab said villagers in fact did file a complaint with the province and that Mr Thavy called him to order an investigation. Mr Mab said every family they questioned refuted the complaints.
“We interviewed 41 families but they said no one barred them” from complaining to authorities, he said.
Mr Mab did, however, fault the NGO for not coordinating with commune and district authorities in assigning plots.
Sareth Boramy, who oversees social land concessions at the Ministry of Land Management, said the NGO’s application for a concession was not even complete.
“[Its] request for the site is not complete yet…because all the documentation is not in my hand,” he said.
Until that time, he added, “they should not do anything.”
Contacted by phone, Brig Gen Lim denied the charges and said the government granted his concession final approval in 2008.
“Don’t believe them,” he said. “No one has tortured the villagers. We did not ask for money when we provided the land. They are poor. Where are they going to get the money to bring me?”
Brig Gen Lim said the NGO had even built the community a school, health care center and pagoda.
And while he conceded that he has not been able to give families the two hectares he had promised–he said he was in the process of requesting another 3,000 hectares for the purpose–the NGO had been distributing medicine and rice to help them make ends meet.
Brig Gen Lim said he was an advisor to the Senate president and an officer in his bodyguard unit.
Mr Chea Sim’s staff could not be reached.