Hundreds of Phnong villagers avoided police blockades and snuck into Sen Monorom on Thursday, saying they are prepared to camp in the town until King Norodom Sihamoni arrives to celebrate Forestry Day on Saturday.
The ethnic minority villagers from O’Reang district are hoping they will get a chance to meet the King during his day in Mondolkiri province to voice their concerns about the nearby Wuzhishan LS Group pine tree concession.
The villagers allege the company is continuing work on a concession that is encroaching upon their farmland and desecrating their spirit forests and forest cemeteries, despite a June 17 order from the Council of Ministers calling for the work to stop.
“We all know that the King is making a trip to our province,” said villager Khen Sophen, “so we would like to let him know the situation of our people who have suffered for more than one year from the Chinese company.”
Early Thursday morning, about 100 provincial police were deployed in 10 places around Sen Monorom to prevent the villagers from entering the town, officials said.
About 800 hill tribesmen from Dak Dam and Sen Monorom communes gathered about 3 km from the town when provincial Governor Thou Son arrived and told the villagers they could march into the town and protest after the King had left.
“I tried to explain to them to stop the protest, but they instead claimed that they would stay at the provincial office to wait for the King,” Thou Son said later that day. “They did not listen to me.”
The villagers broke into smaller groups and infiltrated the town through the forest and smaller roads, avoiding the police and gathering about 200 meters from the provincial office, which Thou Son ordered locked down.
“I protest until the last breath because the provincial and other government officials have failed to solve the problem for us,” villager Pao Sroung said.
“We, therefore, need to use our large numbers to bring our message to the King to understand clearly that the government officials and other top leaders have allowed foreign nationals to hurt our children,” he added.
Fellow protester Nhoeung Yoeuk said villagers had brought hammocks and weren’t going to leave until they met the King.
“We will use hammocks and other materials to help us stay at the provincial office in order to wait for our King because we know that provincial authorities will not allow us to meet the King on Forestry Day,” Nhoeung Yoeuk said.
A Royal Palace official said he did not know how the demonstration would impact King Sihamoni’s visit, or whether the King planned to meet the villagers on Saturday.
Thou Son said he was “really disappointed” with the villagers but did not know how to handle the latest demonstration.
“I do not know how to take action against them,” he said, though he said he had asked officials from Phnom Penh for help.
Deputy provincial police Chief Nhem Vanny could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith warned that if Wuzhishan was violating the order to halt operations, “the government will kick them out.”
He also compared the situation to protests and demonstrations by villagers in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces over the massive Pheapimex concession, which has been linked to Wuzhishan.
“I don’t blame the Phnong villagers at all,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith also encouraged the Phnong villagers to send a letter to him, which he would forward to the King and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“In 24 hours, we can settle this,” he said.
Ham Sunrith, monitoring coordinator for local human rights NGO Licadho, said he and other groups are worried police may use violence to crack down on demonstrations during the King’s visit.
“That is our main concern because those minority members might hold a big protest on Forestry Day, and then police could crack down on them violently as well,” he said.