busra commune, Mondolkiri province – Hundreds of ethnic minority villagers torched and smashed vehicles belonging to the Khaou Chuly rubber company and confronted armed police Saturday when a long-running land dispute turned violent.
The violence erupted when 400 villagers from seven villages in Pech Chreada district’s Busra commune gathered to protest the Khaou Chuly company’s clearing of land, 2,500 hectares of which was granted to the firm in late 2007 by the government as an economic land concession.
The villagers claim that about 1,030 families in the commune, 90 percent of them from the Banong ethnic minority, have been farming the land since at least the 1980s, cultivating rice, bananas and more recently cassava.
Khaou Chuly has already cleared about 25 hectares, locals said.
Thirty villagers leading the march entered in a confrontation with local and provincial police at about 11 am Saturday.
A video taken by one of the villagers on a mobile phone shows a police officer wielding a handgun and shouting: “I don’t care, you all have a lot of people here and we have only a few officers. If you harm me, I will shoot at you.”
The protesters set fire to three of the company’s excavators and smashed another, villagers and local human rights workers said.
“If they don’t give us a fair solution and continue to destroy our crops, we will destroy the company’s property,” said a villager in Busra commune Sunday evening, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution by police, who have been stationed in the area since Saturday.
“My family depends on the banana plantation to earn money… and now it is completely destroyed, so how can we survive?” he asked.
Villagers said that during the protest Saturday they came upon Khaou Chuly company workers who were clearing land with excavators. The workers first used the front-end loaders of their excavators to fend off the crowd of hundreds before fleeing, the villagers claimed.
The villagers said that they then piled bamboo and brush on the machines and set them on fire.
“I am worried about my people and whether they will be arrested. But if they dare to arrest even one of our villagers, all of our people in these seven villages will together go to the jail and bring our pigs, our chickens, our dogs, our cattle, and let the government feed us all in their prison,” said a 31-year-old female villager.
Khaou Chuly company spokesman Chea Heng said Sunday that it was the government’s duty—not the company’s—to solve the problem with the protesting villagers.
“We are waiting to see the solution, and we just stay still until we see a fair solution. We will agree with the government’s decision.”
Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Chan Sarun said Sunday that the ministry is investigating the case.
“We are looking into the case and will find out; if the land belongs to the people, we’ll just give it back to the villagers,” he said.
“The company promised us to talk with the villagers to give them a fair solution,” he added.
Mondolkiri province Deputy Governor Pan Navann said there would be a meeting with villagers Tuesday. “We are looking for a solution,” he said, but declined to comment further.
Villagers interviewed Sunday said the company has offered three options: to relocate families to other farmland at an undisclosed location; pay an undetermined amount of monetary compensation to leave their land; or allow them to stay and give them 50 percent of the profit from producing rubber on their plots.
On Friday, villagers told the company they were choosing to stay on their land and would take the profit share option, and company representatives had started determining how much each family would get.
The villagers, however, were angered by the company’s calculations, which they said were unfair.
They then gathered at about 7:30 am Saturday to protest. They marched through the seven villages, using loudspeakers to shout their slogans and call on others to join them.
“At that time [of the confrontation] a police officer pointed a gun at my chest and then slung it around at other people and said he would shoot me if I dared to do anything to him. This is absolute injustice because it is our land,” said a 24-year-old protester.
“Now we no longer need their offer for the 50 percent profit share. We just want our land back,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha in Phnom Penh)
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