Hundreds of Cambodian villagers trying to submit petitions over land disputes were blocked from approaching government offices and the residence of Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday, with some ordered into minivans to be taken back to their home provinces, sources said.
One group, consisting of about 300 villagers from Sihanoukville, Svay Rieng, and Tboung Khmum and Kandal provinces, had attempted to march to government ministries but were stopped and surrounded by security forces, who ordered them home.
Over a hundred were left behind after refusing to leave Phnom Penh, sources said.
In a statement, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the petitioners had timed their presence in the city to coincide with the visit of U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith.
“I have observed that this is a movement. When Rhona Smith visits, they always provoke problems,” Phay Siphan said.
Meanwhile, Theng Savoeun—secretary general of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community—said after observing the protests that the villagers had come to Phnom Penh because appeals to local authorities had brought no result.
Contrary to government assertions, the petitioners had not been organized by outside groups, he said.
In a separate protest Tuesday, 11 ethnic Kuoy families representing 300 other ethnic families in Preah Vihear province were stopped from delivering petitions at the home of Hun Sen by police, who asked them instead to submit their complaints to local authorities.
Their dispute over land lost to a government concession made to a Chinese company has dragged on for years without resolution, though, a village representative named Kei Hun said, with villagers losing their rights to rice fields, communal forests, water resources, and resin trees.
“We wanted to petition [Hun Sen] to demand our land back,” Kei Hun said.
Another villager, Khoeun Hun, meanwhile said that villagers had already appealed for help to the Chinese embassy in Cambodia without result.
After hearing that Hun Sen had promised to accept petitions at the cabinet office in his residence, the villagers had raised money to travel to the capital, only to find out that their petitions would not be received, he said.
“We tried to petition because we have lost our land since 2014. We have already petitioned in many places, but without any solution,” he said.
No claim to the land
In a statement, Cambodian cabinet official Kong Chamroeun said that petitioning villagers have no title to the land they claim.
“They have no documents. They have lied,” he said.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.