Ethnic Tampuon minority villagers in a land dispute with the company DM Group appeared at Ratanakkiri Provincial Court yesterday, asking to delay their questioning in connection with an alleged November 2008 attack on a police officer.
In 2008, about 40 villagers confronted armed police who tried to detain two Tampuon men involved in the dispute with DM Group, which the villagers have accused of illegally seizing 200 hectares of rotational farmland in Lumphat district’s Batang commune.
The fighting in 2008 erupted outside the courthouse while the pair was being questioned for allegedly trespassing on the disputed land, destroying a fence and threatening the new rubber plantation’s workers.
Three of the five men who were summoned on June 21 met with Judge Loch Lao yesterday morning to ask that the court delay their questioning because they received their summonses only days ago and had not had time to find lawyers.
“We all have done nothing wrong,” said Sven Tou, 30, one of the summoned men. “This is a criminal case, which is why I need a defense lawyer to join in the court procedure in questioning the villagers and me.”
Judge Lao confirmed the meeting with the three men and said he had agreed to grant them an indefinite extension to find legal representation.
“Of course I understand their request to get defense lawyers,” he said. “It was a mistake of the cops to deliver the summonses too late for these men.”
According to the judge, some time last year he charged Sev Kris, 20, with intentionally injuring the officer and the other four–Hsay Kham Near, 45, Pich Ponlok, 47, Sven Tou, 30, and Pring Vin, 45–with conspiring in the attack.
Judge Lao said he did not know why it had taken so long to summon the men, claiming he had only recently received the case.
Provincial police chief Ray Rai said a police agent sustained a serious cut to the forehead during the 2008 scuffle.
“Our cop first tried to resolve the matter with the perpetrators, who hit and cut my police officer, with an out-of-court resolution for compensation, but these villagers have never appeared before police,” he said.
“That is why we lodged a complaint against them,” he added. “But we will never let them go to prison for this. We just want to resolve the compensation through the court system now.”
Mr Rai insisted that the complaint against the five men had nothing to do with the villagers’ land dispute with DM Group.
Mr Ponlok, who insisted he was farming at the time of the scuffle, said he was not convinced.
“I don’t know why I was charged because I am innocent,” he said yesterday. “I am pretty scared because the court system is being used to silence the land protesters.”