An activist from northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province on Monday urged authorities to release his son and other villagers who were detained amid an ongoing land dispute with an agro-industrial company.
On Jan. 20, soldiers from Battalion 261 of Army Command Intervention Division 2 of the Cambodian armed forces arrested Sum Moeun, 54, and his son, Moeun Mean, 26, in Chaom Ksan district’s Yeang commune for “illegally clearing state forest land” and detained them in the nearby Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary Headquarters.
The two men were reportedly subjected to harassment and physical attacks during their detention.
Sum Moeun, a representative of more than 300 Yeang commune families involved in a local land dispute, fled during the night and was in hiding until March 30, when his family discovered him working at a construction site in southwest Cambodia’s coastal city of Sihanoukville.
Moeun Mean and 13 other people who were arrested between Jan. 16 and Jan. 27 in a crackdown on villagers in Yeang commune accused of clearing state land remain in pre-trial detention, and face five to 10 years in prison.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Sum Moeun urged authorities to drop the charges against him and the 14 villagers, saying they only want to be free to work their farmland.
“I request the authorities to release all our residents, including my son, so that they all may enjoy freedom,” he said.
“I have nothing left but to beg the government. I don’t possess anything except a small plot of land. I just ask for the safety of myself and my family, and I request the authorities release those who are being detained in jail so that they may enjoy freedom.”
Yee Sok San, senior investigator for local rights group ADHOC, called the arrest and prolonged detention of the remaining 14 villagers “unjust,” and demanded that they be set free on bail.
“If there is no evidence, the court should release them so that they can fully enjoy their freedom,” he said.
“They should be able to meet with their family members and conduct their daily business without interference. Also, the state shouldn’t waste its budget feeding them at the detention center.”
Attempts by RFA to reach Preah Vihear Provincial Court spokeswoman Chum Kanniya for comment on the cases went unanswered Monday.
The land dispute in Yeang commune stems from a concession granted in June 2012 by the Environment Ministry to agro-industrial company Metrey Pheap Kakse Usahakam Co. Ltd.
The 8,520 hectares (21,000 acres) in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary prompted a dispute between Metrey Pheap and more than 300 families who say they own farmland in the area.
Authorities have told Metrey Pheap to settle the land dispute with the villagers, but also say parts of the land claimed by villagers were within state forest land.
In early February, Preah Vihear provincial governor Un Chanda announced a five-point plan to resolve the land dispute.
He said a working group would be created to conduct a survey, called on Metrey Pheap to register its land, told the company to properly demarcate it, urged villagers to maintain calm and end encroachment on the land in question, and ordered the provincial court to stop issuing summonses and arrest warrants against residents.
But civil society groups say that provincial authorities have failed to implement the measures and are calling for action so that residents can return to their normal lives.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator of local rights group Licadho, told RFA that in order to solve the dispute, the authorities must first allow the remaining 14 villagers to be released on bail, and ensure the measures aimed at ending the conflict are put in place.
“The recommendations of the Preah Vihear provincial governor should be implemented—perhaps it can resolve the conflict,” he said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said last month that land seizures for development are carried out in Cambodia “without due process or fair compensation for affected individuals and communities,” spurring local protests.
The police and military are regularly used to clamp down on the protests or arbitrarily detain peaceful protesters, the group said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.