Armed police have threatened to arrest villagers in Pursat province for clearing land that officials claim is state-owned, but villagers say belongs to them, villagers and rights workers said yesterday.
The alleged intimidation comes two weeks after the villagers protested a planned border crossing to Thailand they claim would affect their farmland, which supports 57 families.
Officials from the provincial environment department allegedly brought more than 30 armed police and military police to Sangkum Thmei village in Veal Veng district’s Thma Da commune yesterday and Monday. Villager Chan, who declined to provide her family name for fear of retribution, said that the police pointed guns at about 50 villagers who were trying to prevent bulldozers from clearing the contested farmland.
“On Monday they pointed guns and intimidated to arrest us and detain us in prison for clearing state’s land,” Ms Chan said. She added that the same police officers returned yesterday, demolished and burned a villager’s cottage, and ploughed roughly 20 hectares of crops.
Local authorities yesterday told a different story.
“No armed forces have been used to point guns or threaten villagers with imprisonment,” said Pursat provincial governor Khoy Sokha.
Mr Sokha claimed that villagers had recently begun to clear government-owned land adjacent to their farmland, and then, claiming it belonged to them, had sold it on to “individual powerful officials.”
He declined to elaborate on the identities of these officials, but said that they had paid the villagers to block the development of the disputed land for the planned border crossing. The government is planning to designate 2000 hectares in Thma Da commune a special economic zone, with newly constructed warehouses and markets, aimed at boosting trade with Thailand, he said.
Veal Veng district governor Chhe Chhiv said that the development would not affect land that villagers have lived on for the past ten years, only the land that officials claim is state-owned.
“Of course, we have started to clear the land…but that land is not the villagers’ farmland,” he said.
Mr Veng added that the crossing would bring significant economic benefits to neighboring provinces Koh Kong and Battambang, as well as Pursat.
Villagers yesterday insisted they had only cleared land that was legally theirs.
“We are not grabbing or encroaching state’s land,” said Tiem, who was afraid to give her full name. “But this plan is hurting us and now all the families have gone in hiding fearing arrest.”
Provincial environment department director Thai Chantha could not be reached for comment yesterday.
District police chief Pong Saly said that he would look into the alleged intimidation.
“But anybody who tries to encroach the state’s land for personal interests will never be forgiven before the law,” he added.
Provincial human rights monitor for Licadho, Soeng Senkaruna, said his organization would join with Adhoc to investigate both the alleged intimidation and the alleged land clearance this week.