Tensions Flare in Minister’s Wife’s Land Dispute

KOMPONG TRALACH DISTRICT, Kompong Chhnang province – About 100 military and provincial police descended upon the rural village of Lor Peang on Monday morning, acting on what they said was a court order to arrest three villagers standing in the way of an agro-development project.

More than 70 local residents involved in a long-running land dispute with KDC, an agribusiness company owned by Chea Kheng, the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem, briefly clashed with the police force at about 10:30 a.m., with police claiming minor injuries after withdrawing.

Lor Peang villagers clamber up the bank of a creek that demarcates the boundary of a disputed 145-hectare plot of land in Kompong Chhnang province on Monday, which they say the KDC company illegally grabbed from them in 2002. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Lor Peang villagers clamber up the bank of a creek that demarcates the boundary of a disputed 145-hectare plot of land in Kompong Chhnang province on Monday, which they say the KDC company illegally grabbed from them in 2002. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Villagers clashed later in the day with KDC workers as machinery moved in to clear the way for a wall meant to close off the disputed land.

Monday marked the second recent day of violence in Lor Peang village after another, similar clash on Saturday, as KDC has seemingly dropped all efforts to find a peaceful solution with the families facing eviction and sent in machete-wielding workers backed by local police to set about clearing the 500 hectares claimed by the company.

Since 2007, when Lor Peang families first complained their land had been illegally grabbed by Ms. Kheng’s company, villagers have been in and out of court for their efforts to stop the development until they receive fair compensation.

Ta Ches commune police chief Chuop Chanthoeun said police and military police were dispatched by the deputy provincial prosecutor to arrest three villagers, though he claimed not to know the name of the prosecutor or the wanted villagers.

Lor Peang village representative Um Sophy, a mother of four, was sacked from her teaching job in 2009 for her activism. Police tried to arrest her on a court warrant Monday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Lor Peang village representative Um Sophy, a mother of four, was sacked from her teaching job in 2009 for her activism. Police tried to arrest her on a court warrant Monday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

“When joint forces tried to get into the house to implement the arrest warrant for the three villagers, they attacked and clashed with the joint forces, leaving around 30 officers with minor injuries caused by villagers’ slingshots,” he said.

“We then decided to withdraw, because our superiors don’t want us to have violent confrontations,” he added.

Snguon Nhoeun, the husband of outspoken village representative Oum Sophy, said that hours before the clash, at about 5 a.m., he awoke to see police surrounding his house.

“When I woke up, I was so shocked to see forces armed with shields and electric batons surrounding our house,” he said, adding that he believed his wife was among the three villagers wanted by police.

KDC workers waited for instructions from their superiors to continue clearing land and flattening the bank to erect a wall around the disputed site. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
KDC workers waited for instructions from their superiors to continue clearing land and flattening the bank to erect a wall around the disputed site. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

“Then we received a number of calls from a man claiming he’s a representative for KDC. He repeatedly threatened that the police would carry out their operation within an hour if we kept refusing to take $10,000 compensation from KDC,” he said.

At about 10:30 a.m., the police attempted to enter the grounds of Mr. Nhoeun and Ms. Sophy’s home, but backed off when villagers resisted. Throughout the day, villagers gathered at the house and barricaded the entrance to the grounds with logs and branches.

“I have four children to feed, so I need my land for them,” Ms. Sophy said Monday afternoon, holding her infant daughter.

“I will battle until my last breath.”

By about 3 p.m., a tractor began moving earth and flattening the bank that villagers had earlier climbed up. More than an hour later, villagers and workers clashed again. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
By about 3 p.m., a tractor began moving earth and flattening the bank that villagers had earlier climbed up. More than an hour later, villagers and workers clashed again. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Standing around Ms. Sophy’s home, villagers showed what they claimed were injuries sustained over the weekend during clashes with the KDC workers. Pauv Doeun, 56, parted her hair to show where she was hit with a projectile.

Another man held up chunks of metal, cut from a length of rebar, which villagers said had been fired at them by slingshot-wielding KDC workers.

But across the creek that divides the land claimed by KDC and the villagers’ homes, workers—carrying machetes, metal bars or wooden sticks, which they said were for clearing land—denied using violence.

Sin Khim, a 28-year-old KDC employee from neighboring Savong village, said it was villagers who were armed with slingshots, bows and machetes and had injured a number of workers during Saturday’s clashes.

Police officials had been waiting around in the area since early morning and said their presence was to ensure that there were no confrontations. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Police officials had been waiting around in the area since early morning and said their presence was to ensure that there were no confrontations. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

“These villagers are so cruel; we are just laborers working for the company to clear the land and build the fence,” he said, adding that villagers had burned down six temporary shelters meant to house the workers.

KDC’s planned agricultural development, he said, had the potential to provide employment for people in at least eight villages in the area, if it were not blocked by stubborn families refusing to let go of their farmland.

But Ms. Doeun said that the hiring of locals to clear the land is already pitting villager against villager, and accused KDC of purposefully provoking the clashes in recent days.

“We will not allow those police to arrest [Ms. Sophy] and other villagers,” she said. “And we will not confront the workers with violence, because the company is using dirty tricks by hiring local villagers who are not involved with the land dispute to provoke violence.”

(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)

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