Four villagers locked in a land dispute with an agribusiness firm in Banteay Meanchey province said Tuesday that they had been summonsed to the provincial court over a property damage lawsuit filed by the company.
The suit was originally filed last year, but villagers said they had not known about it until receiving the summonses last week, shortly after they confiscated machinery from six men working for Leang Bou company whom they suspected of preparing the disputed land to be cleared.
“I just realized last week when I received the summons that I was being sued by the company,” said Ek Vanna, one of the accused men, who serves as chief of Prasat Tbeng village in Banteay Chhmar commune. “It is a threat.”
More than 500 families from two villages—Prasat Thbeng and Tamaing—have been contesting Leang Bou’s claims to more than 1,700 hectares of land in Thmar Puok district since 2008, when the company was granted a concession to start a plantation on land that villagers say they have been farming since 2000.
Mr. Vanna said that Tamaing village chief Tes Neat had also been summonsed, along with villager representatives South Im and Keo Thy.
Company representative Tou Thean Teu confirmed that the company had lodged a lawsuit against Mr. Vanna and three other villagers, but declined to comment further.
According to a copy of Mr. Thean Teu’s business card, which he distributed recently to villagers living on the disputed land, he is an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhay Li and a member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit.
Mr. Thean Teu said Tuesday that although he had held both jobs in the past, he was no longer working in either position. He declined to comment when asked why he was using an outdated business card.
However, villager representative Pen Sophon said villagers who had been shown Mr. Thien Teu’s card felt nervous.
“He uses his position to intimidate us for grabbing our land,” he said.
“We feel the company has a big bone in its back, meaning that they have a senior official to stand for their firm. It sounds scary, but we’re still not afraid to fight for our land.”
Mr. Chhay Ly, who is also chairman of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development, could not be reached for comment.
District Governor Blek Vary said the government had created a committee on January 6 to measure the disputed land and handle the issue.
“This is a very hot land dispute between the company and local villagers,” said Mr. Vary.