Thai Rights Body Censures Firm Over Koh Kong Sugar Plantations

The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand has accused the country’s Khon Kaen Sugar (KSL) of “serious human rights violations” at its two Cambodian plantations in a new report that urges the firm to return the land to the hundreds of families forced off their farms—some of them at gunpoint.

The March 10 report, released Wednesday, comes three years after the commission warned KSL over its plantations in Koh Kong province, which cover a total of 20,000 hectares, and five years after the families filed their complaint with the Thai human rights body.

According to the report, the plantations “resulted in serious human rights violations, including the use of violence to evict villagers from their place of residence [and] impediments against the use of natural resources, which is fundamental to community subsistence.”

KSL has from the start denied any wrongdoing, claiming that it only bought into the plantations—originally secured by Cambodian Senator Ly Yong Phat, who has since sold his stake to KSL—after the 2006 evictions.

The Thai rights commission says KSL nevertheless bears responsibility.

“The impact of these human rights violations are a direct responsibility of Khon Kaen Sugar …due to the company’s decision to receive and benefit from the land concessions which caused human rights violations, regardless of the fact that the company did not itself commit the act.”

Drawing on interviews with a KSL official and the company’s own filings to the Thai stock exchange, the rights commission also points out that KSL was preparing to invest in the plantations prior to the evictions—as early as 2005.

“Villagers became much poorer compared to the time they owned farmland,” the report says. “Children were compelled to drop out of school because their parents did not have sufficient income for their tuition. These children were then compelled to work and earn supplementary income for their families.”

KSL did not reply to a request for comment on the report’s release.

The report will be of limited benefit to the hundreds of families hurt by the plantations, however. Though the commission was created by the Thai government, it has no power to sanction or sue KSL.

What it can do is recommend that KSL return the land stolen from the families where “feasible,” compensate them for their accumulated losses over the years, and clean up the environmental damage it has done.

Despite the commission’s lack of enforcement powers, Teng Kao, who lost his 14.5-hectare farm to the plantations, welcomed the report.

“Since I lost my farm to the sugar company, my family has been forced apart. My two sons, 19 and 23 years old, have gone to work in Thailand and Phnom Penh to make money and support the family,” he said. “I hope this report will help our villagers advocate for decent compensation for everything we have lost.”

Two hundred of the families are suing Tate & Lyle in London over the sugar the U.K. firm bought off the two KSL plantations in 2010 and 2011.

An Haya, a representative of the families, said Wednesday that the case had yet to go to court because Tate & Lyle—which, like KSL, denies any wrongdoing—was still trying to convince them to settle, and that a deal might be close.

“We are in the process of settling the case out of court for 176 families,” he said, declining to say more so as not to jeopardize the deal.

In June last year, Mr. Haya said the families had rejected an offer of $305,000. According to the complaint they filed in London, the families believe they are owed millions.

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