Five Ratanakkiri province villagers embroiled in a bitter land dispute with Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney were left frustrated again Wednesday in their attempts to meet with her husband, Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan.
With Community Legal Education Center staffers and a journalist in tow, the Jarai minority villagers visited the ministry for the second day running in the hopes of discussing the case with Chhan Saphan. And for the second day in a row, they were turned away by Chhan Saphan’s assistant Tim Sorya, who said her boss was not in his office.
Undeterred, the villagers waited outside the office for 40 minutes until Tim Sorya announced that Chhan Saphan had agreed to meet them at the Phnom Penh Hotel.
When the villagers arrived at the hotel, they were met not by Chhan Saphan, but by two men claiming to be representatives for his wife, Keat Kolney. “She asked us to come to see whether [the dispute] can be resolved,” one of the men who identified himself only as Rith told the villagers. “We don’t want to go to the court, we want to finish the matter,” he said.
Rith told the villagers that Keat Kolney had all the necessary legal documentation to prove that she was now the rightful owner of the 450 hectares of disputed land in O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune. Keat Kolney has since converted some of that land into a private rubber plantation.
Villager Sev Khem, 19, told the representatives that the villagers weren’t interested in a cash settlement and demanded that all the land be returned. Rith responded that it was impossible to return all the land because Keat Kolney has not yet recouped her investment from the rubber plantation that she has established on the disputed land. But he added that his side could possibly consider returning some of the 150 hectares of the land that has not yet been planted with rubber trees.
The villagers rejected that idea, and proposed instead that Keat Kolney should turn over all the land except the original 50 hectares they believed they were signing over for Prime Minister Hun Sen to use for disabled soldiers.
The villagers have lodged lawsuits, criminal and civil, against Keat Kolney and local officials claiming they were deceived and swindled out of their 450 hectares of minority land.