More than 40 representatives from so-called rubber plantation solidarity groups will protest today outside the National Assembly against the government’s intention to disband the groups, which were originally established in the socialist 1980s as collectivized farms but have since been sold into private hands.
Ly Phalla, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s rubber department, said Wednesday that he has to further discuss the matter with Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun, but that he plans to travel to Ratanakkiri province Friday to make sure the remaining 34 solidarity farms are dissolved once and for all.
“I don’t understand [those groups]. They have not paid taxes to the government in 15 years. Now the government needs the rubber plantations back,” he said.
The current private owners of the state-owned solidarity groups essentially function as middlemen between the hundreds of workers on 1,300 hectares of Ratanakkiri’s rubber plantations and the rubber processing company Tai Seng Co, which was granted management rights to the plantations in 1997.
The groups are bound by law to sell their resin exclusively to Tai Seng and have been complaining recently that Tai Seng only offers 4,800 riel per kg, which is half the current market value. Tai Seng’s management and human rights workers say the owners of the solidarity groups are parasitically exploiting the thousands of rubber workers on their plantations who are paid a tiny fraction of the market value for the resin they toil to extract from the rubber trees.
Solidarity groups representative Chhe Chan said Wednesday the demonstrators will demand the groups be allowed to stay together and also that they be allowed to sell their resin on the free market.
“The company is pressuring us every day. We want to sell our product on the free market, but the company and the authorities work together to pressure us,” he said.
Last week, the groups clashed with police when they attempted to disregard the agreement and transport resin out of the province for sale in Kompong Cham province.
The chief of solidarity group 23, Bun Tha, said he wouldn’t allow the groups to be dissolved without proper government compensation.
“I don’t understand about the ministry’s decision. We are recognized by the authorities. The ministry must inform us of their policy. If there is no solution, there will be a revolution,” he said, adding that the groups have labored on the plantations since 1987 and should rightfully have gained ownership.
Ly Phalla said groups have every right to protest but there is no way they will gain ownership of the state-owned plantations.
The groups have routinely been accused of underpaying and exploiting plantation workers, and Ly Phalla said he plans Friday to see that the 2007 government directive that disbanded them in the first place is finally put to effect.
“They are investors,” Ly Phalla said of the group operators. “They have exploited the workers. The workers are crying,” he added.