Villagers Burn Down Soldiers’ Shelter on Disputed Land

Three members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) on Monday filed a complaint with police in Kompong Chhnang province, accusing irate villagers of torching a wooden shelter built for them by the well-connected KDC agro-industry firm.

The soldiers have accused local residents, who have been in­volved in a years-long land dispute with KDC, which is owned by the wife of Industry Minister Suy Sem, of burning down a wooden shelter on Saturday where the soldiers were stationed on the disputed land in Kompong Tralach district.

“The plaintiffs accuse three village ringleaders of burning down a wooden shelter,” said Chuop Chantoeun, Ta Ches commune police chief, referring to a wooden hut built in March on the disputed land and where RCAF soldiers are permanently stationed to protect KDC’s interests.

Mr. Chantoeun refused to name the three villagers the complaint was brought against.

“I will send the case to the upper level,” he said.

“This incident is characteristic of intimidation, damaging property and violence,” Mr. Chantoeun continued, adding that the RCAF soldiers had also lost money and belongings in the alleged arson.

So far, no complaint has been submitted by KDC and no arrests have been made, he said.

Contacted on Monday, residents in the area said they were provoked into starting the fire when groups of unidentified men showed up Friday and Saturday and began to measure and install demarcation posts on the 145 hectares of land over which 51 families have fought with KDC for ownership since 2007.

Sguon Yoeun, a local representative of families involved in the dispute, said eight workers began to install border demarcation posts around the disputed land on Friday. The following day, a group of soldiers and about 10 other men in civilian clothes went to the contested site to try and use GPS equipment to measure the land, he said.

When the group refused to stop measuring the land, about 30 local vil­lagers chased them away, Mr. Yoeun said, adding, “the villagers de­cided to burn down their shelter.”

“The company is violating the law because the dispute is still in the courts,” he added.

KDC company officials and the firm’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.

Sam Chankea, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said he believed the confrontation had been engineered to intentionally provoke the villagers. Mr. Chankea described the incident as an “old tactic of provoking violence so they can arrest and imprison the villagers’ representatives.”

Several of those involved in protests against KDC over the years have wound up in jail.

In 2011, the Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court rejected a joint complaint against KDC from the 51 families involved in the dispute and advised them to lodge independent civil suits against the company. Facing restrictive court fees, only 22 of the families have managed to submit individual complaints in the province.

Only one of those cases has been heard so far, that of 70-year-old Chat Batt, a farmer in Ta Ches commune, who took KDC to court over a 3,000-square-me­ter parcel of land she claims as her own. Last week, Ms. Batt lost her appeal and was ordered to pay KDC $1,250 in damages.

Reach Seima, another villager representative, said Monday that there had been no ringleaders in the burning of the shelter, as the villagers had all united to stop the land being demarcated.

“We have been the owners of this land for several decades,” said Mr. Seima. “If the court and the government do not hasten the process of resolving the dispute, a war will happen between the villagers and the company.”

Officials at the Ministry of Land Management could not be reached Monday to ascertain whether they had accompanied the RCAF soldiers to measure the villagers’ land on Saturday. The police chief, Mr. Chantoeun, also said he was unsure if the men had been from the ministry.

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