Human rights organization Adhoc on Tuesday blasted the arrest of two Ratanakkiri province rubber plantation workers and accused local officials of colluding with plantation operators to exploit poorly-paid resin tappers.
The arrests of the two men Friday and Sunday in Prey Veng province followed a months-long battle by plantation operators to maintain a monopoly on the purchase price of resin from rubber tappers in the state-owned, but privately managed, plantation known as Solidarity Group 14, its communist-era name.
The dispute began last year when Group-14 workers, angered that operators had paid tappers only 50 percent of the market price for the rubber they collected, allegedly sold their rubber privately for 70 percent of the market price.
Solidarity Group 14’s operators, Chhay Chan and Bun Than, filed criminal complaints of robbery against eight tappers in De-cember and arrest warrants were issued.
The arrested men—Hong Sar-eam, 32, and Khel Khemara, 40—had fled to Prey Veng province, Ratanakkiri provincial deputy police chief Hor Ang said Tues-day, adding that police are hunting the remaining six suspects.
Pen Bonnar, Adhoc provincial coordinator, said the arrests were “unacceptable,” particularly when thousands of tons of rubber are illegally smuggled each year in the province by powerful officials who are beyond prosecution.
Officials in Ratanakkiri appear to favor solidarity group operators so as to keep incomes low for rubber tappers, Pen Bonnar said.
“All 34 solidarity groups in Ratanakkiri province use their money to work with local authorities…and use all kinds of strategies to fight against those workers,” he said.
If Group 14 workers were successful in demanding 70 percent of the market price for rubber “solidarity groups throughout the province would have to pay 70 percent,” Pen Bonnar said.
Ratanakkiri rubber tycoon Ly Hong Sin—the director of the Tai Seng Company who has previously called for the government to disband the solidarity groups, which he said were exploiting plantation workers by pocketing 50 percent of the market price—called the arrests unjust.
Ly Hong Sin said he has hired a lawyer to represent the eight plantation workers. “Those workers are 100 percent innocent,” he added.
Ly Hong Sin said last year that he purchased resin from the plantation workers, and that tappers should not have to share the profit from their labor with middlemen.
Puth Theavy, the lawyer representing the jailed workers, said he would appeal to the Supreme Court to have the two men re-leased and arrest warrants revoked.
Group 14’s operators claim they have spent their own money to maintain the plantation and that it is within their right to pay the tappers as they see fit.
Group 14’s Chhay Chan could not be contacted for comment on Tuesday but he said Dec 25 that charges were also being prepared against Ly Hong Sin for purchasing the rubber resin that the eight workers had allegedly stolen.