Fifteen Senate staffers on Friday wrapped up a four-day fact-finding visit to Ratanakkiri province, and while there, armed soldiers prevented the group from visiting disputed land on a rubber plantation in Lumphat district, a human rights worker said.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for the local rights group Adhoc, said by telephone that he took the Senate officials on Tuesday to visit a plantation in Batang commune that is owned by the DM Group, a private company that ethnic minority villagers in the area have accused of taking 300 hectares of their farmland.
“When we arrived at DM Group, the gate was closed. Three to four soldiers didn’t let them in and chased them away,” Pen Bonnar said Wednesday, adding that the staffers wanted to tour the plantation as part of a report they are writing for the Senate on illegal logging and human rights abuses.
Pen Bonnar said the company’s refusal to allow officials to enter the plantation supports allegations by villagers and others that the DM Group is illegally clearing protected forest to get at luxury timber.
“If there were no irregularities, they would have allowed them in. [The] Senate’s officials are not part of the dispute,” he said.
Ratanakkiri Provincial RCAF Commander Mong Them said by telephone that he was aware of the incident with the Senate delegation. If the Senate officials want to visit the site, they need to first obtain permission from the provincial government or DM Group, he said.
However, Ratanakkiri Deputy Provincial Governor Chey Sayoeun disagreed: “They didn’t need to ask for permission. Soldiers have no rights to stop them,” he said.
Contact information for DM Group was not available.
Funcinpec Senator Men Maly, chairwoman of the Senate’s Commission on Human Rights, and Reception of Complaints and Investigations, said she was aware of the Ratanakkiri tour, but didn’t know the purpose of it.
Men Maly also said she was unaware that the officials were stopped by RCAF soldiers, and declined to comment further.