A group of villagers in central Cambodia involved in a long-running land dispute with a company belonging to the wife of Mines Minister Suy Sem used machetes and sticks on Monday to protect their leaders from being arrested by about 200 policemen, according to witnesses.
Police had gone to arrest three of the leaders following bloody clashes which erupted when villagers stopped workers of KDC International, a company owned by Suy Sem’s wife Chea Kheng, from fencing disputed land in Lor Peang village in Kampong Chhnang province.
About 50 villagers armed with machetes, sticks, and slingshots kept at bay the policemen who had gone to arrest the three village representatives after obtaining a court warrant.
“I think the police officers are trying to abuse my rights," said Oum Sophy, one of the representatives sought by police. "They don’t want me to help the villagers who are willing to sacrifice their lives if the police arrest me."
Reports said about a dozen people were injured in weekend clashes when about 100 KDC workers armed with scythes, slingshots, and iron balls entered Lor Peang village to fence the disputed land, angering villagers.
Oum Sophy said that the company’s workers also damaged the villagers' houses.
Land seized in 2002
Villagers had alleged that KDC illegally confiscated 184 hectares (455 acres) of land from more than 100 area families in 2002.
Several families had accepted KDC's offer of compensation this year, but others are holding out for a better offer.
Rights group Adhoc's provincial coordinator Sam Chankea accused the company of abusing the law by encroaching on villagers’ land.
He asked Chea Kheng to resolve the land dispute with villagers peacefully, saying she should set a good example to other companies involved in land grabs.
“Chea Kheng has abused the people because she is relying on her husband’s political power as a minister and [a member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party] CPP," he said. "No one dares to prosecute her, so she is abusing the law.”
According to Sophy, pleas by the villagers to the government to come to their aid have fallen on deaf ears.
“The authorities protect the company, and they just wait to arrest people when they have a chance. We are willing to die in our houses,” the Phnom Penh Post quoted her as saying.
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 Chhin Chethay and Samean Yun for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.