o’yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province – Ethnic minority Jarai villagers and police faced off here yesterday morning, as officers briefly prevented villagers from erecting a billboard calling on the provincial court to resolve their six-year land dispute with Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
A group of about 50 villagers stood face-to-face with 15 police officers who blocked their access to the planned billboard site along National Road 78 until reporters and rights workers arrived early yesterday morning, after which villagers were allowed to install the board.
O’Yadaw district police chief Ma Vichet said police had been deployed to maintain order and denied that officers attempted to stop villagers from installing the board at the turnoff from the road to their Kong Yu village in Pate commune.
“We did not stop them,” he said, “We were concerned they would cut some [of Ms Kolney’s] rubber trees or act violent.” Mr Vichet added provincial authorities would decide if the board could stay in place.
Villager representative Romam Hill said the 60 families of his village had pushed ahead with installing the board to call attention to the fact that they have been waiting since January 2007 for the provincial court to process their complaint against Ms Kolney’s company.
“We put up the board today because we want to show everyone who passes through this area that this area has this problem for a long time,” Mr Hill said.
The billboard said, “We would like to request the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court to resolve our dispute with Her Excellency Keat Kolney faster and with justice because this issue has been postponed too long.”
In 2004, Ms Kolney and her representatives allegedly fooled the villagers into signing away more than 450 hectares of their communal land. Her company has since planted rubber trees on 250 hectares of former village land, which included farm and forest land and an ancestral graveyard.
The villagers’ lawyer Yin Savath from the Community Legal Education Center, said he met with Ratanakkiri Provincial Court President Lu Sou Sambath on Wednesday to ask a judge to investigate the villagers’ complaint. He added the case had been without a judge for seven months and since 2007 three judges had been withdrawn from the case.
“Now, [Mr Sambath] said he can’t work on the case because he’s busy with [provisional] detainees,” Mr Savath said. He added CLEC had no involvement in the construction of the billboard, which he said was an idea by the villagers who paid for the board.
Mr Sambath only said the court was conducting an unofficial preliminary investigation, carried out by trainee judge Lon Chan Chetana. “He is studying the case now and this case is complicated because it involves more than 100 people,” he said.
Provincial governor Pao Ham Phan said he was unconcerned by the board. “Let them post whatever they want as long as they don’t cut the other people’s rubber trees,” he said.
Villagers in Kong Yu, a well-kept Jarai village on top of a large red hill, said their living conditions had suffered since the company cleared most of their communal land for rubber cultivation.