About 100 villagers in Preah Vihear province’s Rovieng district on Saturday turned out in protest for the second time this week to prevent a bulldozer that belongs to well-known businessman Try Pheap from clearing their land next to his rubber plantation, local officials and residents said.
One of the villagers, 52-year-old Seak Sokha, said that the district governor spoke to the affected families and told them that authorities were clearing the area to demarcate a 1,000-hecatare social land concession for 200 ethnic Kuoy minority villagers and that they planned to build a new village to relocate the people who lose their land.
“We are not opposed to the district’s plan for establishing the village, but we have not agreed to be evicted from the land and have our houses removed,” Mr. Sokha said.
“We stopped the clearing because …they did not inform us about the second clearing,” he said, referring to the land clearing on Thursday, which the families also stopped through protests. On that day, more than 100 protesters representing about 100 families from Romany commune living on a strip of land adjacent to Mr. Pheap’s rubber plantation stopped his company’s bulldozer as they believed the land was being cleared to expand his sprawling rubber plantation, estimated to be some 10,000 hectares in size.
Commune police chief Chhit Oeung said on Thursday that the clearing had been suspended so that families and authorities could negotiate. But on Saturday morning the bulldozer, with a group of 10 security guards led by Rovieng district governor Ea Saro, returned and begun clearing another plot of land about 500 meters from the first land clearing.
Mr. Sokha said the governor had invited protesters to attend a meeting Saturday, but then he failed to show up—an absence Mr. Saro later blamed on his busy schedule. Mr. Saro added Sunday that villagers had misunderstood the reason for the bulldozer’s presence.
“People are worried because they are afraid that we are clearing their farmland and houses. I have told them we are now simply demarcating the social land concession but they won’t allow us to do it,” he said.
Asked whether the land being cleared on Saturday by the bulldozer was also part of the reported social concession land, Mr. Saro said he did not know exactly where the concession land begins and ends. He then admitted that the area currently being cleared by the Try Pheap firm was probably about 1 km outside the proposed social concession.
Lor Chan, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc who was present at Saturday’s protest, said that although part of the social land concession is reportedly earmarked for ethnic Kuoy families, he believes the rest of the land will be sold to Try Pheap’s company.
“I think authorities are clearing land for Okhna Try Pheap because the bulldozer and the driver are from his company and authorities have given conflicting comments about why the land is being cleared,” he said.