Cambodian authorities have arrested more than 30 villagers during a violent roundup of land protesters in Kandal province where they were protesting against an airport being built by a company owned by a tycoon with ties to the country’s autocratic leader, provincial police and villagers said.
The land at Kampong Talong village in Kandal’s Beung Khchang commune was taken three years ago by the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC), a private Cambodian firm, for construction of the U.S. $1.5 billion airport project.
Around 330 families living on the disputed land refused compensation for their fields, saying the amounts offered in payment by the firm were too low.
Police beat the protesters who rallied Sunday, and 31 were arrested for alleged involvement in violence against authorities during the demonstration.
The land dispute between 330 families and the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC) owned by Neak Oknha (honorific) Pung Khieu Se, an affluent business tycoon close to Prime Minister Hun Sen led to authorities to make the arrests.
Villager Nai Phon, who was monitoring the situation, said that authorities arrested three of his family members — his wife, Khim Chetra, and sisters Nay Phea and Nay Phol, and that police were still searching for and arresting other villagers.
“As a land grab victim, it has been three years since I begged the head of government to help solve this land dispute by giving us fair compensation so that we can accept it, Nai Phon said.
“And now we do not dare to claim the market price. We can accept a reasonable price to end the confrontation and have all the detainees released.”
RFA could not reach Kandal’s police commissioner, Chhoeun Socheth, for comment.
‘It is not a good way’
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at Cambodian human rights group Licadho, said that this is the first time in the history of land disputes in Cambodia that authorities have arrested such a large number of people.
“We still insist on not choosing that way, and it is not a good way,” said Am Sam Ath, who condemned the resort to mass arrests.
“First, it affects both sides and draws more criticism over the issue of the land dispute as well as other allegations,” he said. “And if the people are imprisoned, their suffering will be doubled. This means that their families will face more problems.”
This arrest and violent crackdown erupted Sept. 12 after hundreds of authorities prevented farmers from accessing the land. They set fire to the rubbish in front of the security barricades used by local police and military police to block the road to their farmland now under the control of OCIC.
In response, Kandal Provincial Hall accused residents of causing acts of violence involving the use of sticks, stones, rubber bullets, and petrol bombs that injured 13 police officers.
Authorities called on residents to stop what they said were illegal activities and return to efforts to resolve the land dispute peacefully.
Acting on behalf of CIOC, Kandal provincial authorities have offered villagers U.S. $8 per square meter for their land, but villagers say that is much lower than the U.S. $70-80 per square meter estimated market price.
Van Sophat, land monitoring officer for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, previously told RFA that OCIC had failed to conduct a proper assessment of their project’s environmental impact or to consult Kampong Talong villagers on the proposed development.
The villagers hold title to their land and deserve justice and fair compensation, he said.
Hundreds of police officers blocked villagers on Sept. 7 from visiting rice fields seized to build an airport, though no injuries were reported.
Villagers stopped cultivating their land three years ago, but had to start farming again because business shutdowns caused by the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia have left them without other ways to survive, a villager told RFA in an earlier report.
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