A Change of Guard

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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Land Dispute with Well-connected Company Drags on

Khmer Times/Pav Suy
Thursday, 28 April 2016

Oum Sophy, a representative of Lor Peang village, speaks to reporters yesterday. Supplied

Thirty-four people gathered in front of the Kampong Chhnang provincial hall yesterday morning to submit a petition demanding a solution to their decade-long dispute with the politically-connected KDC International company.

The company is owned by the wife of Mines Minister Suy Sem, Chea Kheng.

A more than 80 hectare plot of land is at the center of the dispute, which residents of  Lor Peang village say belongs to them. Ms. Kheng claims she bought the land in 2006, however. KDC began clearing it of farms and houses that year.

“In [the residents’] complaint, they request a solution from the provincial governor and request the governor give the land back to them. The land of the 34 families is 82.96 hectares. Their land dispute has gone on for nearly 11 years,” said Ouk Chan Pisey, an investigator with rights group Licadho.

“The administration accepted the complaint, but did not promise to do anything with it,” she added.

Provincial governor Chhouk Chandoeun could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Oum Sophy, an outspoken representative of the Lor Peang residents, said three of their members were allowed into the provincial hall yesterday but were met with indifference.

“The official who met with our members stamped our original complaint and promised to hand it over to the provincial governor. However, he refused to give us his phone number and refused to stamp the other photocopied complaints for us to keep. He said he feared we would use it to file a complaint against him,” Ms. Sophy said, adding that this demonstrated a lack of concern for the villagers.

“We have been involved in a land dispute with the company since 2006, when it started to bulldoze our homes and farms,” she said. Residents continued to farm patches of farmland until 2014, when a wall was erected around it.

Dozens of residents and KDC employees were injured in a clash during the wall’s construction.

“Initially, there were 108 families affected by the dispute who stood up to the company. However, the majority backed down and accepted compensation of 2 million riel [$500 dollars] to 6 million riel [$1,500 dollars] because of fear, intimidation and illiteracy,” Ms. Sophy said.

Over the course of the dispute, 10 residents were at one point imprisoned – all have since been released under court supervision.

A resident in his 60s told Khmer Times on condition of anonymity that the land he said  KDC seized was the only land he owned and that he was now nearly starving. Lor Peang village chief Duch Bunheng, who took office more than one year ago, defended the residents.

“The villagers did occupy the land before the company, but I cannot comment if anyone is right or wrong because there might have been a sale or exchange transaction on the land that we don’t know about.” KDC representative Thai Hy declined to comment. “I cannot make a comment about that. Please contact our lawyer,” he said.

Company lawyer Phat Povseang could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Last May, Minister Sem expressed support for his wife’s company at a press conference, saying the land was legally hers. His account of the land’s ownership conflicted with that of village residents. Mr. Sem said his wife purchased it in 2007 and had the documents to prove it. He asked the affected residents to accept compensation.

The affects of the dispute have been incalculable, residents say. Most of the men and teenage boys now work on Thai fishing boats, and many children are malnurished.

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