More than 300 families in Ratanakkiri province have accused commune officials in Veun Sai district of defrauding them of at least $1,500 and threatening them with prison if they complained, villagers and a rights worker said yesterday.
Trolneang Kanthai, a representative of the ethnic Kroueng, Lao and Prov families, said the villagers had initially complained in August to the human rights group Adhoc about the Phnom Kuk commune officials, accusing commune chief Tha Voeunthak and his deputy, Lin Hoeurn, of failing to deliver land the officials sold the villagers in 2007.
According to Mr Kanthai, the families paid the officials $5 for every 5-hectare plot purchased, though he did not know exactly how many families had paid or how many plots they had bought.
“Since then the families have not yet received the land, which is why we asked Adhoc and provincial authorities to help us,” he said, adding that the provincial inspection department had questioned a pair of villagers last week.
Mr Kanthai said the villagers filed another complaint yesterday, following a meeting on Sunday at which Mr Hoeurn allegedly threatened to have any villager who continued accusing him thrown in jail.
Both the commune chief and his deputy denied the charges yesterday.
Mr Hoeurn claimed the commune only collected 2,500 riel, or about $0.63, from a few of the families to help cover travel expenses while registering land in the area, and that it had offered to refund even that.
“I have never intimidated them with jail,” he said.
Mr Voeunthak said, “I am a commune chief. I could not threaten to jail my villagers who voted for me.”
However, he said the provincial inspection office planned to organize a meeting with the villagers and commune officials for some time next week to discuss the complaints.
Officials from the provincial inspection office were unavailable for comment.
Provincial Adhoc coordinator Pen Bonnar said he would wait to see what action provincial authorities took before acting on the villagers’ request.
“If there is no punishment of those commune officials for their crime, we will intervene with the court and provincial authorities again,” he said.