Local representatives of ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri province, who are engaged in a long-standing legal battle with Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney, have claimed that a commune chief threatened their safety this week if they continue to meet unannounced with residents to discuss the land issue.
Sev Khem, a village representative, said O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune chief Sev Nhang told her and others during a Tuesday meeting between villagers, local authorities and police, that they must stop their meetings and other activities with residents of Kong Yu village unless he was informed in advance.
Mr Nhang allegedly warned that the safety of those representing the villagers in their legal battle with Ms Kolney could not be guaranteed if they continued traveling unexpectedly to the village.
Contacted by telephone, Mr Nhang denied the allegations yesterday, saying he did not mean to intimidate the representatives but merely advised them to come to a compromise. He said if human rights workers and lawyers contacted him first, he would send police officers to look after their security.
“When I use my rule to help them they accuse me instead of intimidation. It is just a false allegation,” he said about his remarks during the two-hour meeting. “I only want them to cooperate with local authorities.”
Man Vuthy, project officer for the Community Legal Education Center, said the commune chief’s comments “prove the authority appears to intentionally attempt to cause problems toward rights workers and defense lawyers for entering the village under his jurisdiction.”
Mr Vuthy said his organization is planning to meet with villagers again at the end of the month and that no authorization was needed for him to meet his clients.
The Jarai villagers in Kong Yu claim that Mrs Kolney duped them out of 450 hectares of land in 2004 to build a rubber plantation in the district. In the interceding years, both sides have traded lawsuits and floated out-of-court proposals to settle the long-running quarrel.