More than 40 armed RCAF troops were deployed yesterday to stop a land dispute protest outside Kompong Speu Provincial Court and threatened, according to human rights workers, to open fire if some 200 villagers did not stop their demonstration to gain the release of a jailed villager. The heavily armed troops, whose uniforms bore no identifiable unit or division insignia, were deployed at about 11 a.m. to disperse the protesters from outside the court.
The villagers from Thbong district’s Omlaing commune had gathered to submit a petition to the court demanding that charges against villager Chum Srey Nuon, to be dropped, according to Chan Soveth, deputy chief monitor for rights group Adhoc.
Ms. Srey Nuon was arrested on Dec. 15 and charged with illegally occupying land that belongs to a soldier named Hoem Sam Oeun. However, Ms. Srey Nuon has argued that she had lived on the land for 10 years and that the soldier did not own the land, but had made the ownership claim as a means to help a sugar plantation expand in Omlaing commune.
In response to the villagers peaceful protest outside the court, an RCAF military commander arrived with a truck full of soldiers and issued a deadly ultimatum to the villagers who were trying to push open the gate to the court compound, Mr. Soveth said.
“He threatened the people to close the [gate] and told them that if they did not, they would be shot,” said Mr. Soveth, who was at the court and witnessed the events.
The unidentified commander also warned that he would order his troops, “who looked like they were preparing to fight an enemy,” to beat the villagers on the head with their guns if they did not obey, Mr. Soveth said.
Faced with the armed troops, the villagers heeded the warnings and stopped protesting, Mr. Soveth said, adding that no one was hurt in the standoff, and the villagers were unsuccessful in submitting their petition.
The villagers from Omlaing commune are embroiled in a long-running land dispute involving CPP Senator tycoon Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company.
Rath Thavy, provincial monitor for Adhoc, said the troops were from RCAF’s Region 3, which is based in Kompong Speu. However, deputy to the commander of RCAF Region 3, Kong Bunthorn, said he did not know whether the deployed troops were from his region.
“I don’t know about this case,” he said.
Kompong Speu police chief Touch Heang declined to comment, and did the provincial court’s director Khlaut Pech declined.
Phal Vannak, a village representative, said the villagers were also protesting the summons of another villager, Hak Haing Kim, who the court wants to question over accusations that he committed fraud in the land dispute with Mr. Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company.
“Since 2010 there have been 49 villagers summoned by the provincial court that were involved with the land dispute between the Ly Yong Phat company and villagers,” Mr. Vannak said.
“We are not the enemy, so why did the soldiers carry guns to threaten us? Please, we want the government to help solve the case,” he said.
Chheang Kim Sun, a representative for the Phnom Penh Sugar Company, denied any involvement with the case.
“My company is not involved with those Omlaing villagers,” she said. “I think those villagers lived on someone’s land, so they were evicted from that land. This is an individual case,” she added.
Mr. Yong Phat officially sponsors RCAF’s 313th Battalion in a patronage system that links private companies with military units. In March 2010, members of the battalion were dispatched to quell protests by the Omlaing commune protestors.
A report issued last month by rights group Licadho described land-grabbing crises as having taken “a disturbingly violent turn in the last two months, with at least five incidents involving armed forces opening fire during protests. A total of 19 residents were injured at the protests, including seven from gunfire.”
On Jan. 31, and in the aftermath of private security guards shooting four villagers during a land protest, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned land development companies against using violence in such disputes, or their concessions could be rescinded.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he had not heard about the military deployment at the Kompong Speu court, but he reiterated Mr. Hun Sen’s warning.
“I have not heard about this case in Kompong Speu, but whoever abuses what the Prime Minister said is going to be punished,” Mr. Siphan said. “Even the Ministry of Interior has ordered that no violence be used against peaceful demonstrators.”
“Whoever ordered this is taking a big risk because they are challenging the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Interior.”