Preah Vihear Farmers Hijack Bulldozers, Take Drivers Hostage

Several hundred ethnic Kuoy villagers in a land dispute with a Chinese sugarcane plantation in Preah Vihear province have seized a pair of the firm’s bulldozers that were being used to clear their farms and are holding the two drivers hostage.

Roeung Khan, one of the villagers, said Tuesday that about 400 people surrounded the bulldozers on Monday afternoon, confiscating the machinery and detaining the drivers, who had been clearing land the Kuoy say they have been farming for decades. The Lan Feng company was granted a concession for a plantation on the same land in Tbeng Meanchey district in 2011.

“We saw more than 10 bulldozers clearing the land, so we confiscated two of them and arrested the drivers while the other bulldozers drove away to escape,” Ms. Khan said.

Ms. Khan said about half of the villagers were staying on the disputed land to prevent the company from returning, while the rest had pushed the two bulldozers they seized—the other drivers made off with the keys—to the local commune office with their operators in tow.

She said the villagers had taken complaints about the company to authorities many times before, but to no avail.

“We will return the bulldozers and drivers to the company if they sign an agreement with us and with the authorities to stop clearing the villagers’ rotational farmland,” she said.

Nem Thaing, the chief of Brameru commune, said he would send the bulldozers and drivers on to the district office today and accused the firm of violating the villagers’ land rights.

“I think that taking the two drivers was right, because the villagers have talked to the company representatives many times but they do not listen to them,” he said. “I think the company is in the wrong because the villagers have been cultivating their farms for a long time.

“This is not a small case because the company is not following the law,” he added.

Mr. Thaing said the villagers had been farming the land since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and that Lan Feng was only granted its 9,000-hectare concession in 2011.

Even if families do not have titles to their land—which the Kuoy do not—the country’s Land Law gives them rights to the area if they can prove they have been living there since 1996.

Lor Chan, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said he had seen the villagers holding the bulldozers and drivers hostage.

“The villagers have filed complaints with district and provincial officials accusing the company of clearing their farms illegally, but [the officials] have never solved the problem,” he said.

District governor Ung Vuthy, however, said authorities have tried to resolve the dispute by agreeing to carve some land out of the plantation for the villagers—in accordance with what the government calls its “tiger skin” policy—and accused the villagers of asking for too much.

“We have told the villagers that we will cut out the disputed land like a tiger skin, but they want the company to leave the area. We can’t grant their request because the company has received the land concession from the government,” he said.

Mr. Vuthy said he has urged Lan Feng to stop clearing the land until the dispute is settled, but also vowed to return the bulldozers and drivers to the company if and when they arrive at his office.

Representatives for Lan Feng could not be reached Tuesday.

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