A day after three of their community members were arrested following a violent encounter with police, about 50 villagers from Kompong Chhnang province forged ahead with a peaceful march toward Phnom Penh on Wednesday, but were temporarily blocked by police officials in Russei Keo district.
The villagers, mostly from Lor Peang village in Kompong Tralach district, were planning to deliver petitions to the Ministry of Justice, the National Assembly and embassies to call for the release of five villagers jailed over clashes with workers from the KDC company, which they say illegally grabbed their land more than a decade ago.
After spending the night in a pagoda in Kandal province, the villagers continued their trek to the capital, but were stopped by Russei Keo district authorities at about 10 a.m. and asked to meet in a nearby school with district governor Thuy Sokhorn, who informed them their march had to be halted.
“Generally, villagers do have full rights stipulated in the Constitution for freedom of expression, but we cannot allow them to march in a big group like this,” he explained. “Now they are entering the municipality, so we need to protect security and order. Of course we cannot allow them to go further.”
He said the order to stop the march had come from the “upper level.” KDC, the company that villagers accuse of stealing 145 hectares of their land, is owned by Chea Kheng, the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem.
Outside the school, a scuffle erupted after villagers identified a KDC employee listening in on their meeting. He was chased off the school grounds by angry villagers and hit by an umbrella-wielding monk before falling into a grassy ditch. He eventually fled the scene in a car.
After several hours, officials allowed the villagers to proceed. The group plans to hand out petitions in the city Thursday.
Village representative Oum Sophy, whose husband Snguon Nhoeun was one of the three men arrested in Tuesday’s clash on National Road 5, marched from Lor Peang village to Phnom Penh with her 4-month-old baby.
“We want the United States, European Union and France to put pressure on the government, since this government’s leaders have failed to solve the land problems for the poor who have battled for farmland with the minister’s wife, Chea Kheng,” she said.
Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, issued a statement last month calling for KDC to halt development on the disputed land until the dispute has been settled.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy said in a post to his Facebook page Wednesday that he wants to call Mr. Sem before the National Assembly to explain “why he has allowed his wife to use his political influence to steal land from villagers and to ill-treat her victims in such an inhumane manner.”
Speaking by telephone, Mr. Rainsy said the actions of the police and courts show that they are serving political interests.
“It is our right to put forward a motion of no-confidence and I would hope that among the CPP lawmakers, there are those who feel compassion toward the victims of land-grabbing and could join us in sanctioning Suy Sem,” he said.
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