Rovieng district, Preah Vihear province – A conflict that has erupted in recent months between local mining communities and a Malaysian firm looking for gold here has brought villagers to question the almost two-decade long appointment of Romtom commune chief Lun Chea.
Mr Chea, who at 83-years-old is 23 years older than the official retirement age for civil servants, has been accused by villagers of ignoring their pleas for justice after they were accused of allegedly stealing gold on land occupied by Delcom Cambodia Limited, a company owned by Cambodian investors and the Malaysian oil and gas services provider Deleum Group.
But Mr Chea said in an interview Tuesday that villagers who have been arrested are guilty of trespassing and stealing from land belonging to the company.
“I think villagers aren’t so happy with the commune chief recently,” said Tep Tien, a 37 year-old artisanal miner in Romtom commune.
He said that four men in his community had been summoned to the provincial court on Tuesday for questioning over their alleged involvement in the robbery of gold from inside Delcom Cambodia’s compound.
But when local residents asked Mr Chea to sign paperwork proving that the suspects were longtime local residents with no criminal record he refused to do so as he believed they were guilty of the accusations.
“We are really concerned over the robbery accusations because they are just artisanal gold miners who mine for a small amount to support their families,” Mr Tien said.
Voek Ya, 50, another artisanal miner in the area, said support for Mr Chea was dwindling since police started arresting local miners in early June.
“Local villagers whose families have been gold miners for several generations feel unhappy because he is incapable of serving the people,” she said. “Whenever we approach him to solve our problems he always says it is out of his power.”
Mr Chea, however, said that he has reported complaints from genuine artisanal miners to provincial leaders expressing concerns that their livelihoods are being affected by larger-scale mining operations in the area.
“All those who have been arrested and detained in prison have done wrong and stole property from the gold mining company, so I can’t help them,” he said. “I always resolve the matters of those who are innocent.”
Locals and human rights groups say that two men have been shot – one of whom was killed – in the area since May. While the company says shootings took place because armed men had entered the firm’s operational site in the early hours of the morning in May and June, locals say that security is arbitrarily clamping down on local miners, jeopardizing their age-old profession.
Mr Chea, who himself was a gold miner in the area between 1950 and the end of the Lon Nol regime in 1975, became village chief in Romtom commune’s Prech village in 1979.
In 1991 he was appointed commune chief, a position he has held ever since despite several requests for retirement to the provincial headquarters.
“I informed the provincial CPP party of my retirement since the second mandate of the government but the party wants me to stay in this post,” he said.