by Aun Pheap / The Cambodia Daily
A group of angry ethnic Bunong families faced off against armed police in Mondolkiri province on Sunday morning over hundreds of hectares of farmland the minority villagers accuse a local rubber plantation of stealing.
The 211 families say they have been farming the land for generations, and accuse the Binh Phuoc 1 rubber plantation, which began clearing the area with bulldozers about a month ago, of trying to take it from them. Several of the families had their homes on the contested land razed by security forces last week, and about 100 of them returned to the site Sunday morning to demand the land back.
Yan Mao, one of the protesters, said that about 30 armed police and military police also showed up, threatening to arrest the protest leaders. “We thought the police were coming to help us, but they just came to protect the company,” he said.
The demonstration broke up without incident at about noon, but Mr. Mao said the protesters would be back.
“The villagers will protest again on the disputed land and they plan to build shelters there [Monday],” he said. “If the authorities use force, we will resist and answer with sticks, because this land belongs to our ancestors.”
District governor Sin Vornvuth denied that security forces were sent to threaten or arrest the protesters.
“We sent the police and military police not to take action against the protesters, but because we were worried that violence might break out,” he said.
Mr. Vornvuth also said he had already handed back 375 hectares —of the 500 hectares originally in dispute—to 129 families that authorities determined had legitimate claims to the land, and accused the 211 families still protesting of being recent squatters.
“We cannot find a solution for the protesters because they are newcomers,” he said.
Cheng Sovichet, a manager at the plantation, insisted his company had a legal right to the land, but declined to comment further.
“This land belongs to the company because we have a map delimiting the location clearly,” he said.