Main photo: People protest in front of the Dambe district hall in Tbong Khmum province on October 18, 2019. (Supplied)
Twenty villagers engaged in a dispute with a rubber plantation over more than 400 hectares of land in Tbong Khmum province were released from custody on Tuesday after they were arrested the day before for allegedly damaging the company’s land-clearing machinery, an official said.
Tbong Khmum provincial administrative director Mao Dung said the 20 people were released at about 6 p.m. on Tuesday evening while one man, Heoun Sineat, remained in detention and was sent to court for questioning after the company had filed a complaint requesting his arrest.
Speaking with VOD prior to their release, Tha Lida, who participated in a community protest against the firm but evaded arrest, said some 20 other villagers from Trapaing Pring commune in Dambe district demonstrated on behalf of 129 impacted families and were arrested on Monday morning after they protested the company’s moves to clear farmland that villagers claim is theirs.
According to Lida, about 500 police officers, military police and district authorities descended on the villagers armed with electric batons and handcuffs to protect the Chinese company’s machinery, which was being used to block community members from entering the disputed area in Trapaing Pring and clear their crops and huts on the farmland.
Security guards working for the firm, Harmony Win Investment, had gone around Sre Praing and Boss Snoar villages, which are in the disputed area, on Monday with commune authorities and pointed out the homes of people who protested, with authorities arresting people on the spot, Lida claimed. He said he was worried that he was also wanted for arrest.
“This is such an injustice for the people,” he told VOD. “They encroached on our land already and they arrested the landowners. I would like to appeal to Samdech [Prime Minister] Hun Sen to find a solution and intervene in releasing those who were arrested,” he added, using an honorific for the premier.
On July 21, the Tbong Khmum Provincial Court issued an injunction order forcing 127 families to return land to Harmony Win Investment and remove all construction and equipment on the land, citing four different land titles issued by the provincial land management department on August 26, 2019. The order, which was seen by VOD, states that Harmony Win had bought land from residents of three villages in 2012 and 2013, but had just received the hard land titles last year.
A woman who said she worked for Harmony Win but would not provide her name to VOD on Monday said the company had filed complaints against some individuals in the community, but she did not know how many. This was not the first time residents had damaged company property or attacked workers, she claimed.
“[Trapaing Pring commune residents] used a slingshot to shoot at the company’s machinery and they beat the company’s security guards,” she alleged. “There is evidence in the complaint to the court and the company also filed complaints against several people. So please go to see directly and publish the real news to give justice to the real victim.”
Human rights group Licadho reported in October 2019 that two land disputants, Phon Chhoeun and Sem Sang, were arrested over charges related to a land conflict from 2016, and more than 100 villagers who tried to protest their arrests were blocked by authorities. Sang was sentenced to seven years in prison last month for extortion with aggravated circumstances involving a weapon.
Licadho spokesperson Am Sam Ath urged the government to resolve land disputes with transparency and justice, warning that the conflicts could grow worse if not properly addressed.
“The government needs to peacefully solve [this dispute] in a way that can be mutually accepted,” he said. “The root cause of the issue that needs to be solved is the land issue, and not the arrests or the accusations. The arrests and the accusations cannot be a solution for a land issue, because that causes even more anger among the people and makes the issue bigger.”
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)