Villagers embroiled in a long-running land dispute with Keat Kolney, sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, took a hard negotiating line Sunday, saying they would cede 50 hectares of Ratanakkiri province land they claim is theirs, but only if it goes to disabled soldiers affiliated with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“If the prime minister’s disabled soldiers come to the area, the people are happy to given 50 hectares to them,” said Sev Kem, 19, a farmer from Pate commune’s Kong Yu village in O’Yadaw district.
Villagers claim that in 2004, local officials coerced about 70 families into signing away some 450 hectares of their farmland. They say they thought they were giving 50 hectares to a group of disabled soldiers affiliated with Hun Sen. But bulldozers then arrived and cut through 270 hectares of the disputed land to make way for a rubber plantation owned by Keat Kolney, who is also wife of Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan, villagers said.
In January, villagers from Kong Yu and neighboring Kong Thom village filed lawsuits in Ratanakkiri Provincial Court to try and get their land back. Keat Kolney offered to settle by providing a school, returning 50 hectares of land to the villagers or offering an unspecified amount of money, said Ith Mathoura, a Community Legal Education Center attorney representing the villagers. Villagers rejected those options.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer Chhe Vibol said Sunday that his client could not accept the villagers’ offer because she had purchased the land legitimately and already spent money on rubber trees.
But he added that he would welcome further discussion with the villagers.
“We are waiting for further discussions. If there is no more negotiation, we will allow the court to proceed with the case,” he said.
Five village representatives came to Phnom Penh Friday, hoping to meet with Keat Kolney, Keat Chhon and Chhan Saphan.
Ith Mathoura said letters to the three have gone unanswered, but villagers plan to go to the Ministry of Land Management on Tuesday and try to see Chhan Saphan—who also co-chairs a donor-government working group on land issues—in advance of the donor meeting on June 19 and 20.
Chhan Saphan and Keat Chhon could not be reached for comment on Sunday. Nuth Narang, a secretary of state at the ministry, declined comment on the case, saying it was not his problem.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith wrote by e-mail that he was unfamiliar with the full details of the case, adding that the first priority would normally be to examine the legality of the land acquisition.
“But sometimes if the government feels that it would be good to keep the local people in the area despite the legality of the transaction, it might intervene,” he wrote, though he did not elaborate.