For the third day in a row, five Jarai villagers from Ratanakkiri province involved in a land dispute with Keat Kolney went to the Ministry of Land Management seeking an audience with her husband, Secretary of State Chhan Saphan, and for the third day in a row, they were rebuffed.
Pressure has been mounting on the villagers and their lawyers, as negotiations have stalled over some 450 hectares of O’Yadaw district land that villagers claim they were coerced and tricked out of to make way for a rubber plantation owned by Keat Kolney.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer Chhe Vibol reiterated his client’s innocence Thursday. “We bought the land legally,” he said.
On Thursday morning, a strongly built man dressed in a khaki bodyguard uniform blocked villagers from entering the Ministry of Land Management. He accused a reporter of leading villagers to the ministry, and said complaints should be directed to the National Cadastral Commission, headed by Minister of Land Management Im Chhun Lim, not to Chhan Saphan directly.
The man, who refused to give his name, threatened to sue the Ratanakkiri villagers on unspecified grounds for continuing to come to the ministry. After half an hour, Chhan Saphan’s assistant, who declined to give her name, called one of the villagers, Sev Khem, 19, into the ministry building.
Sev Khem emerged almost two hours later and said that an official from the National Cadastral Commission and Chen Saphorn, a deputy director of administration at the ministry, had told her to drop the lawsuits pending in Ratanakkiri provincial court.
Chen Saphorn in a later phone interview denied that he had told Sev Khem to drop the litigation. “No one told her to withdraw it,” he said. He added that Chhan Saphan could not meet with the villagers because he had a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Even though he is [Keat Kolney’s] husband, he doesn’t know about the company’s business,” he added.
Villagers vowed to continue their fight. “I will still go there to meet him,” villager Romam Hil said at a thinly attended press conference Thursday afternoon. “Keeping the lawsuit is good,” he said.