03/14/2018, 10.10

Kratié, clashes over land dispute: eight peasants released

On March 8, local police forces opened fire on the 400 demonstrators. The number of victims of unrest is not yet clear. United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, on a visit to the country, has asked the government for an independent investigation into the incident.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The Court of the north-eastern province of Kratié has ordered the release on bail of eight farmers, arrested last week following violent clashes over a land dispute between the villagers of Thnou, in the district of Snuol, and security agents. Although free, the accusations of violence against public officials, occupation of public land and damage to property remain pending.

On March 8, local police forces opened fire on the 400 demonstrators who had blocked the 76A highway for three hours. Previously, workers from the Memot Rubber Plantation and security forces burned down the huts and razed the farms of 300 villagers locked in a dispute over ownership of the land. Memot took the land under concession at the same time as the residents settled there and they are now subject to eviction by the authorities.

The death toll is still unclear, but the UN special rapporteur Rhona Smith, who has been visiting the country, has asked the government for an independent investigation into the incident. Based on the information provided by villagers, at first, local human rights activists reported six victims, while pro-government authorities and media insisted that there were no dead, but two wounded. Villagers, meanwhile, claimed to have witnessed at least two deaths and local hospital doctors refused to declare how many patients they had witnessed.

Eight people were arrested following the violence. One of them is still hospitalized. Court officials and local police are reluctant to discuss the detentions, allegations and release of them two days ago. However, two of those arrested confirm the release of all members of the group to the Phnom Penh Post. Before the liberation, the provincial court requested that the farmers sign a written agreement in which they commit themselves to interrupting the occupation of the land belonging to the Memot Rubber Plantation. The violation of this agreement will result in a new arrest.

On the same day, peasants from 37 communities gathered in Phnom Penh to present petitions to the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Land Management and the National Assembly, demanding that the three institutions accelerate the resolution of their land disputes. More than 300 farmers have joined the protest, representing about 7 thousand families involved in disputes totaling about 20 thousand hectares of land in the provinces of Tboung Khmum, Kandal, Svay Rieng and Preah Sihanouk. The farmers held banners and marched together, denouncing how the disputes have impoverished them and cost them farms, homes and work. They invite government officials to visit the communities to investigate their claims.

The seizure of land in the name of economic development, often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents, is one of the main causes of protest in Cambodia. The disputes due to the expropriations go back to the regime of the Khmer Rouge of 1975-79, which imposed forced evacuations and forced transfers on a large scale. It was followed by a period of confusion over land rights and the formation of "illegal" communities when refugees returned in the 1990s, after a decade of civil war.

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