Ethnic Bunong farmers in a land dispute with a Vietnamese-owned rubber plantation in Mondolkiri province gave up control of a company bulldozer they seized last week after dozens of armed police and military police showed up on Saturday to take it back.
About 200 Bunong families in Keo Seima district accuse the Binh Phuoc 1 plantation of encroaching on their land, which they say they have been farming for generations. Local authorities say the families are recently arrived squatters, and razed dozens of their homes last month.
Farmer Yan Mao said a group of them hijacked one of the plantation’s bulldozers on December 29 while it was being used to clear land, but gave it back Saturday after some 60 police and military police arrived and began making threats.
“We were scared because the police and military police surrounded us and threatened to kill us with guns or to make arrests if any of us tried to stop the authorities from taking back the tractor,” he said.
Mr. Mao said the farmers had erected 12 shelters on the sites of some of the homes leveled last month, but were warned not to put up any more by district governor Sin Vornvuth, who accompanied the police on Saturday.
“The district governor threatened to burn down the shelters and put us in handcuffs if we continued to build,” he said. Mr. Vornvuth declined to comment.
District police chief Sun Bunthoeun confirmed he deployed officers to seize the bulldozer, but said he knew nothing more. “I know nothing about the case because I just followed the governor’s orders,” he said.
Cheng Sovichet, a manager at the plantation, said the company was granted a land concession on the disputed area by the government, and had requested that district-level officials intercede on its behalf.
“The [bulldozer’s] confiscation was illegal because the villagers prevented the company from working. We wanted to find a peaceful resolution, but the villagers refused, so we asked the authorities to intervene.”
Mr. Mao said a group of villagers planned to travel to the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to protest against the firm and their local officials.