Protest Continues Over Kompong Speu Arrests

chbar mon city, Kompong Speu province – Hundreds of villagers descended on the Kompong Speu Provincial Court for a second day yesterday to protest the arrest of two men over their alleged roles as ringleaders in violence that flared last week in a long-running land dispute.

You Thou and Khem Vuthy were detained and charged on Wednesday over last Thursday’s torching of two makeshift shelters that belonged to companies owned by businessman and CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat and his wife, who have both been granted 10,000-hectare concessions for sugar plantations. Villagers say a few thousand hectares of concession land in Omlaing commune is theirs.

Dozens of protesters claimed that Thpong district police officers used force to try to block their journey to the demonstration at the courthouse yesterday.

“I was beaten twice on my left arm by a group of Thpong district police officers, who set up a blockade to prevent our five homemade trucks from bringing about 70 villagers, rice and food to the provincial town,” said 29-year-old Try Kea, who lifted up his sleeve to show a light bruise on his arm.

“We confronted the district po­lice officers for about an hour after traveling about 20 km from our commune,” Mr Kea said. He added that villagers plan to protest for five days to secure the release of the two arrested men, who have been charged with incitement, colluding to set the structures on fire and colluding to cause violence.

Provincial police chief Keo Pisey and Thpong district police chief Im Sophal both declined to comment when reached by telephone yesterday, saying they were too busy.

More than 100 villagers also spent Wednesday night outside the office of the provincial government in Chbar Mon City, only to be repulsed back to the edge of National Road 4 in the morning, villagers said yesterday.

“I spent the night sleeping with other protesters in front of the provincial government’s offices,” said 30-year-old Soth Tim. “But a crowd of about 100 police officers used a water truck, shields and electric batons to move us from the government office, and they beat some villagers with batons,” Mr Tim claimed.

About 20 police officers were stationed outside the courthouse yesterday to prevent protesters from entering.

“There are no court officials here today,” said a provincial police officer who declined to give his name. “We are here to prevent a small group of bad people pretending to be part of the protest, who might torch or destroy court property.”

As of yesterday, the two arrested men were still in detention, according to their lawyers, who said they plan to seek the release of their clients on bail.

Yin Savat, an attorney from the Community Legal Education Center who represents Mr Vuthy, said the closure of the courthouse prevented him from making this request.

“I tried to file a letter with the provincial court asking for the release on bail of my client,” Mr Savat said. “The courthouse was locked.”

Investigating Judge Keo Money and prosecutor Khut Sopheang could not be reached for comment.

Rights groups condemned the charges against the two men in a joint statement, saying that the accusations are unfounded and that the court refused to listen to defense witnesses. The prosecution, the statement said, failed to offer any evidence.

“The bogus charges against the two community representatives constitute yet another instance of Cambodia’s rich and powerful using the judicial system as a tool of enrichment and weapon of intimidation,” the statement reads.

Six SRP lawmakers visited the protesters yesterday, saying they plan to submit a letter to the National Assembly and the court asking for the release of the detained men.

“The arrests are not correct because the land belongs to the victims,” said Nuth Rumduol, a lawmaker for Kompong Speu province. “They have been using the land for a long time.”

A day after last Thursday’s arson against company property, a crowd of more than 600 villagers stopped bulldozers from clearing any more land for the agricultural concession granted to Mr Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company.

The attempt at land clearing came after villagers rejected a compensation offer of $100 to $200 for each hectare of their land, said Roth Thavyk, a provincial investigator for local rights group Adhoc.

Villagers stand to lose as much as 2,000 hectares of farmland because of the concession, Mr Thavyk said. Villagers gave a higher estimate, saying as much as 3,000 hectares of their land is endangered.

Chan Suos, the wife of Mr Thou, one of the detained villagers, said at her home yesterday that about two hectares of her family’s rice farmland has already been cleared for the concession.

Ms Suos said she and her husband’s four children went to yesterday’s protest, but that she stayed at home to take care of her six grandchildren, who were seated next to her as she spoke.

“I don’t know what I should do right now,” the 55-year-old woman said, wiping the tears from her eyes with the hem of her sarong. “I really don’t know what I should do.”

Ms Suos denied that her husband had anything to do with Thursday’s fire, saying he was at home and “badly sick.”

“It’s true maybe he opposes the development because the development has a lot of impact on villagers’ farmland,” she said. “He used to ask the company not to clear the villagers’ farmland and to keep 50 meters distance from the villagers’ farmland.”

According to a soldier in the RCAF 313th Battalion, Mr Yong Phat’s company had stopped clearing the land. The senator sponsors the battalion in a formal patronage system involving private companies and the armed forces. The soldier, who declined to give his name, said he was posted to the concession area after last week’s confrontation.

“Since we have been here, a crowd of villagers came twice to see whether the company had cleared the area or not,” he said, at a closed entrance to the concession area, where more than 10 other soldiers were visible. “I showed them the bulldozers and cranes have been kept at one spot, and have not been used for clearing.”

Rows of parked bulldozers were visible in the distance. A truck carrying bamboo was allowed into the concession area soon after the soldier spoke.

A subcontractor for Mr Yong Phat confirmed that no land had been cleared since Friday’s protest.

“We have stopped for awhile, but in the near future if the local and provincial authorities give us a green light after having a meeting with villagers, we will start clearing again,” Nem Sambath said at a plantation office under construction in the concession area. Workers were busy yesterday smoothing the foundation of the building.

“I think villagers have been incited to protest and burn down the makeshift shelters,” he said. “Because we have cleared about 600 hectares of the concession area during the last two months, but there were no protests.”

Calls to Kompong Speu provincial governor Kang Heang went unanswered yesterday.

Yesterday’s statement from rights groups raised questions about the legality of the concessions granted to Ly Yong Phat and his wife, whose 10,000 hectare concessions are side by side.

“In effect, it appears that this may be a ‘backdoor’ 20,000-hectare concession,” the statement reads, adding that this violates Article 59 of Cambodia’s land law, which limits concessions to 10,000 hectares.


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