Villagers in Kompong Speu province claim they were harassed by authorities there after holding a protest in front of ANZ Royal Bank’s head office in Phnom Penh last week to demand that the lender help them because it had financed a sugar plantation they accuse of stealing their land.
About 100 of the villagers protested in front of the bank on August 14 after a petition asking for assistance went unanswered. During the protest, however, the bank told them no help would be forthcoming because the Phnom Penh Sugar plantation, owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, had recently paid off its loan in full.
Villagers on Wednesday said local police and officials questioned and intimidated them as soon as they arrived back home the day after the protest.
“A police officer asked me who led the protest. I told him we all cooperated to demonstrate against ANZ to ask for a solution,” Chheng Sopheap said. “Police asked me for a list of people who joined the protest, but I told him I didn’t have a list in my hand…. I think this is to intimidate us to not protest, but I am not worried because we did nothing wrong.”
Yauk Noeun, who also joined the trip to Phnom Penh, said her village chief accused her of protesting against the bank illegally.
“The village chief told me to please let his authorities know if I go to Phnom Penh next time because I joined the protest illegally, but I told him I don’t care if the protest is illegal because I just want my land back,” she said. “I think the questions were meant to intimidate the villagers because the village chief asked me for the leader of the protest.”
Chay Kimhorn, another villager, said a commune police officer had yelled at him for joining the protest because, the officer claimed, their dispute with the plantation had already been settled.
Phnom Penh Sugar says all eligible families have been compensated, provided with substitute land and offered good jobs on the plantation. But many of the villagers dismiss the compensation as paltry, the new land as poor and parched, and the plantation jobs as no substitute for their lost farmland.
Provincial police chief Keo Pisey confirmed that police were sent to question the protesters but denied any intention to harass them.
“I sent my officers to question those people because they protested illegally,” he said. “I think it was not wrong to question them and it was not to intimidate them. We just wanted to get information from those people about why they protested without informing authorities.”
Mr. Pisey did not say what he would do if they tried to protest again and declined to comment further.