ratanakkiri province – The police and soldiers arrived at O’Yadaw district’s Kong Yu village shortly after 2:30 pm Monday, piling out of a gray Camry, AK-47s in hand.
Standing before them were over 100 Jarai minority villagers who had just finished a three-hour meeting with Yash Ghai, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for human rights in Cambodia.
Ghai had come to Kong Yu as part of his 10-day fact finding mission to Cambodia.
It was supposed to be a quiet visit by the UN envoy to the village, which has been the site of a long-running legal dispute between residents and Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister, Keat Kolney, over 450 hectares of disputed land that she is turning into a rubber plantation.
Instead, the visit became a brief face-off.
Ghai arrived in Kong Yu around 11:30 am Monday. At 1:45 pm, two workers from Keat Kolney’s rubber company rode into the village on a motorbike and tried to take photographs of the villagers meeting with Ghai. UN officials asked the man with the camera, who declined to identify himself, to leave, on the grounds that his photographs could be used to intimidate villagers.
At 2:30 pm, just as the meeting with Ghai was breaking up, O’Yadaw deputy district governor On Kit and six police, military police, and soldiers arrived—some reeked of alcohol.
On Kit told Ghai that he had not obtained any permission from local authorities to visit the village, adding that he was operating under orders from Provincial Deputy Governor Bou Lam.
“I don’t need permission,” Ghai responded.
Sok Na, the RCAF chief for O’Yadaw district, said: “We are here to protect villagers from any problems. Any NGO who wants to come must get a letter from me because this village is under my control.”
“I came to guarantee their safety,” Sok Na said of the UN visitors. “We are afraid of kidnapping and hostage taking,” he added. On Kit added “grenade attack” to the list of potential threats in the village.
A policeman next to Sok Na took photographs with his camera phone.
Ghai told the authorities that he would cooperate if they wished to arrest him.
“You take me to jail. I don’t have a problem,” he said.
At this, the soldiers and police waved their hands saying there would not be any arrests.
Around 15 minutes after Ghai and his UN colleagues left the village, the authorities also departed Kong Yu in their Camry.
A ripple of laughter went through the crowd of villagers.
“If we don’t complain [about our land issue], we’d die anyway,” said villager Sev Khem, who has represented the residents of Kong Yu in their dispute with Keat Kolney.
Local authorities have kept a tight reign on access to Kong Yu village.
Voice of Democracy radio and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights have both been blocked from holding meetings with villagers here in recent weeks.
Ratanakkiri Deputy Governor Bou Lam said in a phone interview on Tuesday that Ghai had failed to respect local authorities.
“I just demand that he meet with local authorities. I would have organized the trip and had the police and military policy accompany him,” he said, adding that he feared for Ghai’s safety.
Ghai, who also met with representatives from Keat Kolney’s rubber company, said he had informed local authorities of his trip to Kong Yu and scheduled an appointment with Bou Lam for Tuesday morning, but Bou Lam did not show up.
Ghai also said that not only is the right to free assembly guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution, as a representative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he has unfettered access to Cambodia, per a governmental agreement.
He said the Kong Yu case exemplifies several troubling human rights trends in Cambodia, notably the country’s deep-seated networks of patronage and the failure of courts to offer the powerless adequate means of redress.
Ghai said that he is particularly concerned about the future of indigenous communities in Ratanakkiri, given the rush of development to the remote region.
Without specific protections, indigenous groups won’t have much of a future in Cambodia’s growing market economy, he said.
“Unless active steps are taken, they will become victims of the market and political corruption,” he said.
Keat Kolney’s attorney, Chhe Vibol, declined on Tuesday to comment on the UN envoy’s visit to Kong Yu.
In January, Kong Yu villagers filed civil and criminal suits at the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court in an attempt to win back the land they say they were fooled out of.
In June, Keat Kolney, who says she obtained the land legally, filed a criminal suit of her own, charging villagers with fraud and their lawyers with incitement.
Both parties in the suit have also taken their fight outside the courtroom.
In June, Keat Kolney filed a complaint with the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which has yet to be resolved, against the legal aid lawyers representing the villagers.
Attorneys for the villagers, meanwhile, helped organize well-publicized visits to the Ministry of Land Management and the Ministry of Finance in Phnom Penh. And the attorneys have been trying to broker what international influence they can.
In January, USAID Director Erin Soto visited the area and spoke with locals about the case.
Ith Mathoura, an attorney for the Community Legal Education Center, said she hoped the international scrutiny on the Kong Yu case will help keep the court proceedings transparent.
“This is a message to the court. They have to try the case fairly. There are a lot of eyes watching,” she said.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Court Judge An Samnang said that as a judge he must remain immune to all extra-judicial influence, whether from inside or outside the country.
“We don’t think about who has money and power,” he said, adding: “All people are equal in front of the law. The most important thing is who has enough evidence.”