An opposition-led human rights panel of Cambodia’s parliament will conduct a site investigation over a decade-long land dispute between villagers and a company belonging to the wife of Mines Minister Suy Sem with the aim of negotiating a settlement between the two sides, the panel’s chairman said Monday.
A representative of the Commission on Human Rights, Complaints, and Investigation will visit the site of the dispute in Kampong Chhnang province at the end of the month, committee chair and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The commission will dispatch a delegate to investigate the dispute,” he said, referring to the ongoing row between the residents of Lor Peang village and KDC International, a company owned by Suy Sem’s wife Chea Kheng.
“After the investigation, we will share our report with relevant parties.”
Eng Chhay Eang called the dispute, in which villagers allege that KDC illegally confiscated 184 hectares (455 acres) of land from more than 100 area families in 2002, “complicated” and said it required an investigation of the actual site.
He said that the delegate would meet with villagers to get a better understanding of their demands from the company and negotiate a settlement, adding that if neither side was willing to compromise, the dispute would have to be resolved in court.
The Kampong Chhnang provincial court has failed to rule on the dispute for years, and KDC had been accused of attempting to pressure villagers into taking compensation packages they say are too low to move off the land.
Several families had accepted KDC's offer of compensation this year, but others are holding out for a better offer and Eng Chhay Eang said they had asked the bipartisan commission to mediate the dispute outside the judicial system because “they lost confidence in the court.”
The panel will carry out the probe following Pchum Ben, an annual Khmer religious festival which ends on Sept. 24, he said.
Villager representative Oum Sophy told RFA that she believes the commission’s investigation would bring justice to the people of Lor Peang and seriously consider their ownership claims.
“If the commission [only] asks authorities that are involved with the company, [the authorities] will not support the villagers,” she said.
“Only the villagers can provide the true information [about the dispute].”
Tensions over Lor Peang village reached a new high in June with bloody clashes which erupted when residents stopped about 100 KDC workers armed with scythes, slingshots, and iron balls from fencing off the disputed land. Around a dozen people were injured in the faceoff.
The following month, some 50 villagers used machetes, sticks and slingshots to ward off about 200 policemen who had gone to arrest village representatives after obtaining a court warrant.
Rights group Adhoc's provincial coordinator Sam Chankea has accused KDC of abusing the law by encroaching on villagers’ land, saying Chea Kheng was “relying on her husband’s political power as a minister and [a member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party] CPP” and that “no one dares to prosecute her.”
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 to 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 Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.