Villagers Claim Soldiers Hired to Prevent Planting

Villagers in Koh Kong’s Botum Sakor district said Friday that Union Development Group (UDG) used military forces to prevent villagers from planting paddy rice on land that is locked in a longstanding dispute, a claim the military denied.

Khun Thala, a 40-year-old villager, said Friday that the Chinese firm employed soldiers to guard the land and block villagers.

“Friday evening, some 30 soldiers hired by UDG prohibited villagers from planting paddy rice,” Ms. Thala said.

“I will struggle until I die to protect my rice field and try to grow paddy rice on my land because we are poor villagers and depend on rice to support us,” she added.

In February, the Council of Ministers issued a directive ordering UDG, which owns a 45,000-hectare land concession within the boundaries of Botum Sakor National Park, to stop destroying villagers’ shelters and bulldozing their land until an agreement on compensation was made.

But the company flouted the order, with rights groups and residents saying bulldozing and the destruction of rice fields has continued. Villagers also denied government claims that only fields belonging to those who had signed off on compensation agreements had been razed.

Brigadier General Yon Min, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander in Koh Kong province, said he hadn’t heard of the villagers’ allegations but admitted that soldiers had been sent to protect the company’s projects.

“There are about 10 soldiers requested by the company to protect them as they build the bridge and road,” he said.

He also downplayed criticism of the military presence in the village, saying it was appropriate for soldiers to guard the company.

“The company has received a license to develop this area and this area is located in the forest where our military is based,” he said.

The company received a concession in 2008 to develop a massive tourist resort on the pristine Koh Kong coastline. Villagers and the opposition CNRP have said, however, that large parts of the concession have been instead turned into plantations for cassava and palm oil trees.

In Kongchet, provincial coordinator for Licadho, said the rights group was investigating the villagers’ claims.

“It’s a serious violation of human rights if the company used military forces to threaten villagers. Military should be protecting the nation, not companies,” he said.

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