Seventy-two Sihanoukville villagers have fled to Phnom Penh after police cracked down on them in a land dispute in Mittapheap district this month, villagers said. They are near starvation and fear for their safety, villagers said in interviews Sunday.
Police and military police in Sihanoukville began arresting people on Nov 12 for their involvement in a dispute over 125 hectares of land near the Sihanoukville port, according to reports from municipal officials and villagers. At least 39 people have been arrested.
Officials have said they are arresting wealthy con artists who took land to scam a profit, but villagers say they are destitute and have nowhere else to go.
“Most of the villagers are very poor people who have been living on the disputed land since it was forest,” said a 46-year-old man who identified himself as Kemony.
A 39-year-old man who identified himself as Tola took his family to Phnom Penh after other villagers said police had branded him a ringleader and had a warrant for his arrest.
“If I am arrested, no one could earn money to feed my wife and two sons,” he said.
He and the other 71 villagers have asked for help from the rights group Licadho and are requesting food from King Norodom Sihamoni, they said.
The villagers said they spent all they had to get to the capital, where they are staying at a pagoda, and those who didn’t have enough for the trip are living on the streets of Sihanoukville.
“Most of the women and children whose husbands and fathers were arrested are all staying on the street begging for food. Some small boys were forced to abandon school to walk the streets with their mother,” said a 28-year-old woman who gave a reporter her name as Srey Ny.
Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak defended the crackdown, and said those arrested need to be taught a lesson.
“We cannot let them out of jail because it will encourage other villagers to grab the land anarchically and then some day our society will find land grabbing everywhere,” Say Hak said Sunday.
Licadho founder Kek Galabru, however, said interviews with the villagers backed up their claims that they are poor and in need of land.
“Their clothes are dirty and old, those villagers are very thin…and they look pale and sickly. They are so pitiful, they do not have enough food to eat,” she said.