Sihanoukville Land Dispute Arrests Mount

An additional 30 Sihanoukville villagers involved in a land dispute have been arrested on allegations of inciting others to grab land in the municipality, municipal Governor Say Hak said Tues­day.

The latest arrests, conducted on Monday and Tuesday, bring the total detained to 39 villagers since authorities began cracking down Friday on those involved in an ongoing dispute over 125 hect­ares of land in Mittapheap district near the Sihanoukville port.

“Monday afternoon and today, 30 other ringleaders were arrested and police, military police and court officials are continuing to investigate to arrest other ring- leaders,” Say Hak said.

Say Hak and other municipal officials accused more than 400 families of violently grabbing the contested land as the dispute heated up last month. Villagers claimed that they belong to poor landless families who settled on unoccupied land, some more than four years ago.

They in turn have accused powerful officials and businessmen of trying to lay claim to the land, now that villagers have cleared it and land prices are rising.

Police, however, said the detained villagers are ring leaders who organized the land grabbing to make money.

“I still have three court-issued arrest warrants to catch other top ring leaders. I hope that the arrest of those ring leaders will be a lesson to anyone who has wanted or is going to grab the land,” said Kol Phally, bureau chief of Sihanoukville penal police.

The publisher of a local bi-weekly paper said one of his reporters was arrested in the sweep.

Hay Sophat, 27, a reporter with the Khmer language Pel Pruk newspaper, or Morning Newspaper, was arrested Sunday afternoon as he played cards at his house in Mittapheap district, said publisher Suon Sophalmony.

“I feel sorrowful because my reporter was innocent,” Suon Sophalmony said.

He said he has filed a complaint with the Khmer Journalists Association for Democracy.

“The arrest and detention of a reporter was an unacceptable act done because officials wanted to discourage media from reporting on the issue,” he said.

Say Hak, Kol Phally, and Vachan Than, bureau chief of municipal military police, all denied any reporters were arrested.

Human rights groups expressed worries about the arrests, which come as land issues heat up across the country.

“I think now they are using this to intimidate the people into leaving, to evict them from the land,” Thun Saray, president of Adhoc, said Tuesday. “[Government officials] don’t like to try to solve this kind of thing properly.”

Thun Saray said arrests of poor people accused of grabbing land are becoming increasingly common, as are evictions.

“We see this happen every day. We worry about the poor people…if they really need the land, [government officials] should not arrest them,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Solana Pyne)


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