TEN residents of Kandal province were arrested Sunday after the violent conclusion of a protest in which 400 demonstrators blocked a section of National Road 2 to express their outrage at a private development company that on Friday dispatched bulldozers and excavators to disputed rice fields, a local rights group said.
The protest, which backed up traffic for 5 kilometres, began early Sunday morning and ended at 5pm, when about 100 regular and military police arrived in Kandal Stung district to disperse the group, said Ouch Leng, a land programme officer for Adhoc. When the protesters refused to disperse, Ouch Leng said, the police beat some with batons and arrested 10 men and women.
Kandal provincial police chief Eav Chamreun denied that police had beaten any of the protesters, and said that they had attempted to negotiate with the group for “about four hours” before deciding to arrest some of them. He said he did not know how many had been arrested, but that they were being held at the Kandal Stung district police office.
“Most of the people we arrested are ringleaders and drunken men, so we arrested them and will hold them at the district police office for questioning. They cannot take the road as their hostage,” he said.
A representative of the protesters, 45-year-old Than Vuthy, said they had decided to protest after three excavators and three bulldozers from the Heng Development Company appeared on Friday near a 200-hectare section of disputed land in Prek Sleng commune.
Chhun Sirun, the Kandal provincial governor, said he had ordered police to disperse the protesters because they were disrupting traffic, and that residents of his province would not be allowed to stage the types of protests that occurred last month in Kampong Speu province, where villagers embroiled in a land dispute with a company owned by a Cambodian People’s Party senator blockaded roads and, at one point, burned down a makeshift office building.
“These villagers will not have success like in Kampong Speu because this land belongs to the Heng Development Company, which has had ownership for a long time already. They have blocked the road, and now they will face the law,” Chhun Sirun said.
Than Vuthy and other protesters said that 843 families would be kicked off their rice fields if the Heng Development Company were allowed to develop the land. He also accused Meas Sokhen, chief of Prek Sleng commune, of selling the land to the company in secret and pocketing the proceeds.
Meas Sokhen said she believed the 843 figure was probably inflated, and that some of those families may have farmed the land in the past but left it idle for years. She denied having taken part in any illicit land deals.
She said villagers in her commune had been farming the land since 1986. Though district and provincial officials said the company had purchased the land in 1996, she said it had succeeded in convincing only 14 families to sell their plots at a rate of 1 million riels (US$239) per hectare.
Oeung Chanry, another representative of the protesters, said the company had been unable to produce documentation proving that a sale had taken place.
“The company has come to grab our land, and to violate us, and they say they bought it from the villagers, but we want to see the documents, and to see whose name is on the documents,” she said. “But the company representatives said we would not be able to see the documents. They said they could do what they wanted, because we are villagers and we don’t know about the law.”
Company officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Owned by Sieng Chanheng, the Heng Development Company was granted a land concession totalling 8,654 hectares by the Council of Ministers in September 2006 in Ratanakkiri province’s Andong Meas district, according to the Web site of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and
Fisheries, which stated that the concession was for “investment in agro-industry and other trees”.
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said Sunday that the Ratanakkiri concession had not led to any disputes.
“That land concession was in the forest, so it didn’t affect the villagers’ farmland, so there was no problem with the villagers,” he said.