More than 100 Khmer agricultural laborers protested in Mondolkiri’s provincial capital on Monday, urging provincial officials to resolve an ongoing land conflict between Phnong minority villagers and their Chinese employer, Wuzhishan LS Group, which has left the workers temporarily unemployed.
O’Reang district Governor Nham Pheng said the paper pulp company transported the workers to Sen Monorom in order to appeal to provincial Governor Thou Son.
The workers have remained idle for the last week as Phnong villagers in O’Reang’s Dak Dam and Sen Monorom communes have blocked roads leading into their villages in an attempt to prevent the company from planting pine trees on traditional Phnong farmland, spirit forests and cemeteries.
Also on Monday, Thou Son met with Phnong villagers from Sen Monorom commune. He is scheduled to meet today with villagers from Dak Dam, according to the governor and Hor Phlil, a protester and Sen Monorom commune council member.
Officials are worried that the controversy could descend into violence in the coming days.
Earlier this month, police used water hoses to disperse about 800 Phnong villagers who demonstrated in front of Wuzhishan’s office in Sen Monorom town.
Villagers in Dak Dam said Sunday that a Chinese Wuzhishan official and several police officials threatened to use force on the villagers if they continued to block company trucks from moving workers and baby pine trees throughout the two communes.
Phnong villagers interviewed on Saturday and Sunday said they remain resolute, despite the threats.
“They violated the [Council of Ministers’ order] and they violated our rights,” Krang Sarath, a 30-year-old Sen Monorom commune villager, said on Sunday. “We need the company to stop its activity and to send their workers away.”
Krang Sarath said police, including military police, have visited the commune on several occasions, carrying guns and rifles and using threatening language.
“They show us their rifles with bullets and ask us whether we love our life, or our land,” he said. “We are powerless and weaponless. We are only acting within the law to demand what belongs to us.”
“No official dares to take care of minority members because they are afraid of their own security,” he said.
Nhem Vanny, deputy provincial police chief, declined to comment Monday on whether police have used intimidation tactics with Phnong protesters.
A Chinese Wuzhishan official also declined to comment when approached in Sen Monorom town on Sunday.
The Council of Ministers reportedly ordered Wuzhishan to suspend its operations pending an investigation into its 10,000-hectare land concession in the province. The company has the option of increasing its concession to 199,999 hectares.
Nham Pheng, the O’Reang district governor, said the company has ignored the order from Phnom Penh.
Wuzhishan has cited a new map signed and approved by the provincial governor Thou Son in January that apparently gives the company the right to plant pine trees on more than 80,000 hectares of land in O’Reang, Pech Chhreada and Sen Monorom districts, Nham Pheng said.
“I am not aware how many hectares of land have been planted [in the province], but it is really big,” Nham Pheng said on Monday.
On Sunday, villagers in Dak Dam recalled the June 16 protest in Sen Monorom town, saying that police went beyond just using water hoses to break up the demonstration.
Ngach Narin, an 18 year-old pregnant woman from Dak Dam commune, said one police official kicked her twice in the belly.
“My stomach has been hurting since that day but the doctor told me that my fetus remains healthy,” she said.
Nang Touch, 37, of Sen Monorom commune, said that her 20-year-old son was slapped twice on his left ear after police accused him of trying to rush into the Wuzhishan office. She said she believed police are being paid by the company to crack down on Phnong villagers in the two communes.
Kay Neang, 30, stayed a night at the provincial health center after water was sprayed on her face, causing her to fall to the ground unconscious.
“I am really disappointed that provincial officials discouraged the minority people from protesting,” she said.
Ny Chakriya, head of the monitoring section at human rights NGO Adhoc, said earlier this month that it is not illegal for police to use water hoses to break up demonstrators. But he also noted that the Phnong villagers said they were peacefully protesting before the police started with the hoses.
The well-organized Phnong villagers were continuing with their road blockades on Monday, according to Hor Phlil. Villagers like Ngach Narin, the pregnant 18 year-old, worry that if they give in to Wuzhishan, they may have to fight for more than just their farmland.
“Someday maybe they could evict us even from our villages and plant pine trees there as well,” she said.