Ethnic minority villagers represented by lawyers from the USAID-funded Community Legal Education Center threatened legal action Monday over a disputed land deal in Ratanakkiri province involving Keat Kolney, Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister.
A representative of Keat Kolney said the controversial land sale by villagers in O’Yadaw district in 2004 was legal, and that the Pate commune residents had signed documents agreeing to forfeit their land.
Keat Kolney’s representative Im Sam Ath also said that claims by the Jarai minority villagers that local government officials coerced them into selling their land were “an exaggeration.”
Im Sam Ath added that Keat Kolney’s land, which is now a rubber plantation, is a model for other rural investors.
“Provincial authorities hold up our plantation as an example for newer investors,” he said.
CLEC attorney Iph Mathoura said Monday that the land sale deal was illegitimate, and that a complaint would be filed at Ratanakkiri Provincial Court today.
“The contract was based on lies and fraud and under the 2001 Land Law, no one can individually sell collective [indigenous] land,” she said.
The complaint claims that village and commune officials told villagers in mid-2004 that Prime Minister Hun Sen needed their land to give to disabled soldiers, and that it would be taken if they did not sell it.
Villagers subsequently thumbprinted documents, believing they were selling only 50 hectares of land in Kong Yu village, the complaint says.
Shortly after, families in Kong Yu received donations of $400 each and a sarong from Keat Kolney, though local officials did not tell them this was in exchange for 270 hectares of their land, the complaint states.
Despite villagers believing they had signed away only 50 hectares, laborers for Keat Kolney have be-gun clearing a much larger swathe of land for a rubber plantation that also includes property belonging to Kong Thom villagers, the complaint states.
“Till now, HE Keat Kolney’s workers have cleared some 270 hectares of our farmland and will continue to clear the land in Kong Thom village,” the villagers claim.
Im Sam Ath said Keat Kolney legally owns the land, and is contributing to development in the area, although he added that Keat Kolney is unaware of the details of the sale.
The sale was legal under the 2001 Land Law because each villager thumbprinted a document handing over land that they had individually cultivated, he said.
A host of NGOs including CLEC will today call on Keat Kolney to return the “indigenous lands,” according to a copy of a joint statement to be read out in the provincial capital of Banlung this morning.
The statement, provided by CLEC, is to be issued by the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 23 human rights organizations, as well as NGO Forum, Legal Aid of Cambodia and Community Forestry International.
The statement also calls for the government to investigate allegations of corruption against local officials involved in the case.
Contacted Monday night, Yar Narin, director of the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, said that he knew nothing about the proposed lawsuit and declined further comment.
“Ratanakkiri is in crisis now—land-grabbing is out of control and devastating indigenous lives—and Kong Yu is emblematic of the worst of these cases,” NGO Forum Deputy Director Ngy San says in the statement.
“There is no clearer example in Cambodia today of the rich and powerful exploiting the poor and marginalized,” LAC Director Peung Yok Hiep adds in the same statement.
At Keat Kolney’s Phnom Penh residence in Tuol Kok district Monday, an assistant who gave his name as Vuth said Keat Kolney was aware of the plans to file the lawsuit but did not want to talk to journalists.
A bodyguard to Chann Sophann, Keat Kolney’s husband and sec-retary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, said the couple were contributing to Ratanakkiri’s development.
The bodyguard, who did not give his name, said Chann So-phann did not want to speak to a reporter.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan.)