The United Nations' special envoy on human rights has pledged to highlight a land dispute in central Cambodia involving the wife of the Minister of Industry in talks with government officials during a fact-finding mission to the country.
Surya Subedi made the promise following an appeal for intervention by around 300 residents of Pursat village as he traveled to the Kompong Tralach district of central Cambodia’s Kompong Chhnang province on Monday to commemorate International Human Rights Day.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur, who arrived in Cambodia on Saturday for an eight-day fact-finding mission, said he would appeal to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to resolve the long-standing dispute between villagers and KDC International, a company owned by Minister of Industry Suy Sem’s wife, Chea Kheng.
Villagers allege that KDC illegally confiscated 184 hectares (455 acres) of land from more than 100 area families in 2002, saying the company took the property before the provincial court had issued a ruling on the dispute.
A resident of nearby Lor Peang village in Kompong Tralach’s Taches commune pleaded with Subedi to help her appeal to the government over the dispute, saying that she had lost both her land and her job.
“Because of the land dispute, several of the residents were arrested and imprisoned, while others have fled the village,” she said.
“I would like His Excellency [Surya Subedi] to bring our village’s message to the government to solve the issue.”
Subedi, who is expected to meet with Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, Hun Sen, and other government officials, said he would include the issue in discussions and also work to bring it to the attention of the international community.
“Firstly, I would like thank you for raising your concerns to me. I have a lot of sympathy for you and I salute the courage you have to [express] your rights,” the rights envoy said.
“I will do my best to make an effective representation on your behalf to the government. By listening to people like you, I get actual information which gives me the power to express my view as powerfully as I can,” he said.
“The reason I travel to provinces like this is just to listen to you so that [during] my dialogue with authorities I can refer to cases like yours and ask them to make sure that people shouldn’t be in jail for crimes they didn’t commit.”
KDC owner Chea Kheng couldn’t be reached for comment about the land dispute Tuesday, but has previously said she is legally entitled to the land.
“I would like to inform you that the villagers’ complaints against me are not true. I have documents to prove that I bought the land,” she recently told RFA’s Khmer service.
Since his appointment in March 2009, Subedi has made eight visits to Cambodia and has presented five reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which renewed his mandate for a further two years in March 2011.
In addition to meeting with government officials, Subedi will also be meeting with representatives from Cambodia’s nongovernmental organizations, the country’s donor community, and the United Nations country team.
At the end of his eight-day mission, the Special Rapporteur will release a press statement highlighting the issues raised during his meetings and summarizing his initial conclusions.
Cambodian officials rejected a report by Subedi in August which called for electoral reforms and accused authorities of rights violations over economic land concessions.
At the time, Om Yin Tieng, head of the government’s Human Rights Committee, said Subedi was siding with the country’s political opposition and civil society.
In another report, Subedi also warned that Cambodia could plunge into violence if it does not reform the current electoral system to allow for fair and free elections.
Subedi will present his next report to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council at its September 2013 session.
Mondul Keo for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.