UN, Rights Groups, Investigate Intimidation in Pursat

Representatives from the UN and rights organizations said yesterday they had launched a field investigation into allegations that Pursat police intimidated villagers involved in a land dispute in Veal Veng district.

The contested land is to be developed for a 2,250-hectare Special Economic Zone in Thma Da commune that will include a border-crossing with Thailand’s Trat province and is aimed at boosting trade between the countries.

Fifty-seven families from Sangkum Thmei village claim the development will displace them from farmland they have been working since the early 1990s and claim to own. Villagers said earlier this week that armed police and military had threatened them with arrest over the dispute.

“Villagers have temporary documents to prove ownership of the farmland,” said Men Sara, provincial investigator for the human rights group Adhoc. He said each family owned between three and 10 hectares of farmland, and that the documents had been signed by local authorities in 1998.

Mr Sara, who is investigating the allegations with three other rights workers from Licadho’s Pursat Office and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Battambang, met Wednesday with a committee for resolving the dispute, consisting of local authorities, police and RCAF’s 825th border battalion.

He said they were told the committee wanted to speak peacefully with villagers.

“Villagers are so frightened,” said Licadho investigator Soeng Senkaruna, “because plenty of the committee officials are armed soldiers, police and military too.”

Local authorities dismissed the allegations of intimidation and claimed only state-owned land would be developed.

“The development is not going to displace local villagers, and their farmland will never be affected,” provincial governor Khoy Sokha said, adding that the committee planned to carry out an impact assessment study.

Thma Da commune police chief Suon Khut said that no armed forces had threatened villagers and that the villagers had illegally cleared land belonging to the government.

“We never intimidate villagers, but some of these people don’t come to us to handle their documents to see whether they are the real or the fake ones,” he said.


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