Five Ratanakkiri province Jarai villagers embroiled in a long-running land dispute with Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney showed up at the Ministry of Land Management and at the Ministry of Finance Tuesday afternoon, hoping to meet with her husband and brother. They failed to meet either.
On March 24, villagers sent letters requesting an audience with Keat Kolney’s husband, land management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan, and Keat Chhon, but they never received responses, said Yorth Bunny, a project officer at the Community Legal Education Center.
At 3pm Tuesday, the villagers decided to try their luck again, walking into the Ministry of Land Management with an entourage of five attorneys and staffers from Legal Aid of Cambodia and CLEC, one journalist and one human rights worker in tow.
At the Ministry of Land Management, they lodged a formal complaint to the Minister of Land Management, Im Chhun Lim, requesting the return of some 450 hectares of O’Yadaw district land they say they were swindled out of to make way for a private rubber plantation owned by Keat Kolney.
Chen Saphorn, deputy director of administration at the ministry, told the small crowd that he would forward the complaint to his minister, and then to the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes, which is overseen by the Council of Ministers under the direction of CPP Cabinet Chief Sok An.
The group then found its way to Chhan Saphan’s office at the ministry, where they were told he was not in, and they left copies of the complaint and the March 24 letter, Yorth Bunny said.
“We came here to meet him to have him give back the land,” said Roman Hil, 45, a Jarai from Kong Yu village who took part in the visit. He added that the Jarai people, who are subsistence farmers, will disappear without their land.
“Without land, ethnic minorities will all be dead,” he said.
Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer Lor Chunthy expressed skepticism that land ministry officials would handle the complaint justly.
“We find it hard to believe because the system we filed with seems not to work well,” he said in an interview.
The group then moved on to the Ministry of Finance, where they were rebuffed by a guard at the front gate, who did not allow them to enter, said Yorth Bunny. He added that they left copies of their letter with the guard and at a small administrative office.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer Chhe Vibol said Tuesday that the villagers should leave his client’s highranking husband at the land ministry and brother at the finance ministry out of the dispute.
“It is her business and she does the business by herself,” he said.
Chhan Saphan’s assistant, Tim Sorya, said Tuesday evening that Chhan Saphan had been too busy to meet with villagers.
“He has a lot of meetings,” she said, adding that Chhan Saphan himself is not involved in the dispute. “It is a separate case,” she added.
A man answering the phone at Keat Chhon’s cabinet who declined to identify himself said that Keat Chhon had spent the afternoon at the National Assembly, adding that Keat Chhon is not involved in the dispute.
“It is two separate people,” he said. “Why don’t they meet Keat Kolney?”
Yorth Bunny said that the villagers have vowed to show up at the ministries day after day, until they can secure meetings.
“They will keep going,” he said.