Commune officials in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadaw district have been attempting to persuade ethnic Jarai villagers involved in a long-running land dispute with Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney to accept money to withdraw their lawsuits, a representative and a lawyer for the villagers said Thursday.
Villagers’ representative Sev Khem said that Pate Commune Chief Sev Nhang and Councilor Romam Yort, both of the SRP, had been promising either $250 for each of the 52 Kong Yu village families or a school for the entire village in exchange for dropping a 2007 lawsuit accusing local authorities and Ms Keat Kolney of forging documents and tricking them into selling a 450-hectare communal plot.
Villagers didn’t accept the deal, Mr Sev Khem said, adding that the two officials had also promised separate, unspecified deals for villager representatives in exchange for encouraging people to settle.
Villagers’ lawyer Sourng Sophea of the legal-aid NGO Community Legal Education Center, said it has been difficult for villagers to turn the offer down. “They are poor and hopeless, and the court is slow,” Mr Sourng Sophea said. “They don’t have hope that they will get the land back…. This is a psychological threat,” he said, accusing the commune officials of working for Ms Keat Kolney.
Mr Sev Nhang claims that it was his idea—and not Ms Keat Kolney’s—to offer people money to drop the lawsuit. “People elected me and now the land has been half bulldozed on about 250 hectares,” he said. “I help them compromise,” he added.
Mr Sev Nhang said that he had actually been offering $400 to each family and a school for the village, adding that if villagers agree to his proposal, he would bring it to Ms Keat Kolney to see if she might be amenable to it.
“I just asked people’s opinions, and now people don’t agree,” he said, but added that villagers had actually signed-off on the sale of their land.
“What did we file the lawsuit for? They have already bulldozed, and rubber trees have already been planted,” he said.