Authorities in Cambodia’s capital forcibly returned a group of 40 villagers to their home province Friday after they attempted to petition visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao over a Chinese-owned company they say encroached on their land without providing proper compensation.
The villagers, from western Koh Kong province, had gathered near the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh to hand a petition to Hu, who landed in the capital Friday as part of a four-day visit to Cambodia at the invitation of King Norodom Sihamoni.
During the visit, ahead of Cambodia’s hosting of the 2012 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on April 3-4, Hu is scheduled to sign aid deals with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and other cooperation agreements.
Cambodia is this year’s chair of the regional ASEAN body, which also includes Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
According to the group of villagers, the local government in Koh Kong’s Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts granted Chinese company Union Development Group a 99-year lease for 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) of land to develop for ecotourism in 2008.
They claim that land owned by more than 1,000 families in five communes was part of the package granted to the company and that they never received compensation for being evicted from the premises, per the company’s agreement with the government.
Members of the group said that they planned to inform Hu in the hopes that he would provide them with a solution to their problem.
“I didn’t come here to hold a protest. I wanted to give my petition to the embassy because I saw on television that the Chinese president was coming,” said one villager.
She said that the group hoped to inform President Hu that the Union Development Group had reneged on its agreement to compensate villagers for relocating or to set aside alternative sites to resettle the villagers.
But the villagers were prevented from delivering their petition to embassy officials and were instead made to return home to Koh Kong province by authorities who feared the group’s presence would tarnish the country’s reputation ahead of the ASEAN summit.
Pledge to resolve
Koh Kong’s provincial deputy governor Sun Dara told RFA’s Khmer service that the authorities had no intention of preventing the group from delivering its petition to the Chinese Embassy, but that its actions had “disturbed the public order” amid preparations for the ASEAN Summit.
He pledged to allow the villagers to meet with the provincial land dispute committee to resolve their case.
“We will raise the issues with the government, and when there is a decision made we will implement it,” he said.
Cambodian nongovernmental organizations criticized the action against the group of villagers, calling it an abuse of human rights.
Rights group Adhoc’s Koh Kong coordinator Neang Borateno said that the authorities had unlawfully restricted the freedom of the group.
And another rights group Licadho’s Koh Kong coordinator In Kongchet told RFA’s Khmer service that he does not expect the authorities to uphold their promise to resolve the villagers’ issue.
“The authorities convinced the villagers to return, but they don’t have any intention of resolving the situation,” he said.
“The villagers have already filed several complaints to the provincial authorities and relevant ministries, and they even set up a roadblock, but there still has been no solution.”
According to an annual Adhoc report released last week, the Cambodian government gave away nearly 800,000 hectares (two million acres) of public land in concessions to private companies last year.
The government issued 123 land concession licenses to private companies by transferring the status of land use from public to private. The licenses cover a total of 752,000 hectares of land, two thirds of which are protected forest and wildlife preserves, it said.
Land disputes are a common problem in Cambodia, where an estimated 30,000 people a year are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which banned private property and forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
Reported by Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.