More than seven months after a massive government crackdown on land protesters in eastern Cambodia’s Kratie province, some two dozen of the 1,000 evicted families have moved back to demand the return of confiscated fields.
Families who returned to Broma village in Kratie say soldiers sent to the area to quell what the government called a “secessionist plot” have taken over their farmland and harvested their crops.
Villager Yan Yin said up to 30 families out of the 1,000 evicted families had returned so far after government forces moved in to disperse village families who refused to vacate state land they had used for farming.
The government has said the villagers were backed by activists, such as jailed radio station chief Mam Sonando, who it accused of leading a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state."
Yan Yin said the returning families were being barred from harvesting potatoes on fields they had planted before the soldiers got there.
He said a group of between 10 to 15 soldiers had illegally confiscated their potatoes and threatened the villagers not to harvest them.
“The soldiers have not allowed us to harvest the potatoes,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “They warned us not to go near our fields.”
Pin Dorn, a villager representative in Kompong Damrei commune, where Broma village is located, said 22 of the families had returned and the military has not allowed them to cultivate their rice fields.
This week, 18 of the returned families filed complaint with local police, saying the soldiers threaten to arrest anyone who tries to harvest the potatoes.
They are urging provincial authorities to intervene on their behalf and tell the military to give the fields back, villagers said.
Kompong Damrei Commune Chief Khoun Yoeun said he received information on the military seizure of the crops from the Broma villagers but has not yet spoken with them about it.
“I have heard about the case but I don’t have details yet,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, saying he would investigate the case.
Srey Yanna, the military commander in charge of soldiers deployed in the area, could not be reached for comment.
Villagers said at least 30 soldiers are staying in Broma to monitor the residents there.
Before the crackdown, local residents had been embroiled in a long-running dispute with Russian firm Casotim, which had been granted a land concession to build a rubber plantation near the village.
Authorities deployed hundreds of soldiers to the area in May after villagers refused demands to vacate their farmland for several months.
Authorities said the military operation, which resulted in the death of 14-year-old girl Heng Chentha, was necessary to stop the villagers from carrying out a plot to secede from Cambodia, but rights groups have charged that the claims are an excuse for authorities to clear the land for Casotim.
Eight villagers have been jailed for orchestrating the “secessionist” plot alongside prominent radio station chief Mam Sonando, in a decision that has garnered international condemnation.
Khoun Yoeun said the 1,000 families who had been evicted from the area were people from other provinces who did not rightfully live there in the first place.
He said some of the families who returned have “proper” houses there and that they had been issued land titles in a campaign undertaken by Prime Minister Hun Sen using volunteers to register land plots.
Villagers who told investigating authorities that Mam Sonando was the mastermind in the secessionist plot have received land and support from the government, according to sources.
Since the arrests of Broma villagers and Mam Sonando in July, authorities have not made any fresh detentions in connection with the land dispute.
But in December, authorities called rights worker Chan Soveth, senior investigator for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), to answer charges that he “assisted perpetrators” in the alleged secessionist plot.
He appeared before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Dec. 24 and was released after two hours’ questioning, easing fears by activists that authorities had planned to detain him for the investigation.
According to the court summons, he is accused of financing villagers who planned to establish the self-governing zone and, if convicted, faces one to three years imprisonment and a fine of U.S. $500 to $1,500.
Reported by Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.