Cambodian villagers have filed a class action suit in Bangkok against Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation for human rights violations after the eviction of hundreds of villagers in Cambodia’s Oddar Meanchey province, with a US rights group calling the case a “historic lawsuit”.

The sugar firm was awarded three concessions in Oddar Meanchey’s Samraong and Chongkal districts – named Angkor Sugar, Tonle Sugar Cane, and Cane and Sugar Valley – in 2008, measuring around 20,000 hectares. The projects involved forced land evictions and the razing of villages starting from 2009.

The firm eventually gave up the concessions, which were nullified in 2015 and handed back to the government, following complaints filed with the Thai Human Rights Commission and a ban on the company’s imports to Thailand from Cambodia in 2011.

Mitr Phol is one of the largest producers of sugar in the world and counts Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle and Mars among its clients.

Two Cambodian plaintiffs from Samraong district filed the lawsuit in the Civil Courts of Bangkok on March 28. It includes a class of around 600 families from the province.

The duo, whose lawyers say have been kept anonymous to the media to protect them, are claiming damages of more than 4 million baht, or around $131,000.

“The facts of this case clearly rise to the level of both negligence as defined by the Cambodian Code and the infringement of statutory provisions intended for the protection of others, resulting in damage, as codified under Thai law,” a brief of the case reads.

The lawsuit additionally alleges that Mitr Phol colluded with Cambodian authorities to violate a slew of local laws, including the Land Law and Forestry Law, as well as international human rights obligations governing both countries.

Read more: The bitter aftertaste of a sugar deal gone bad

Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, coordinator and lawyer at the Community Resource Centre Foundation, said the lawsuit was filed because Mitr Phol had not been open to finding a non-judicial resolution to the land dispute, necessitating the action.

She added that while the two plaintiffs were demanding compensation, the court would deliberate on a compensation formula that would be applied to the remaining families if the case were won. “The other families have to show that they are group members of the class. Then that formula will apply to the other persons as well,” she said.

Polkla said Mitr Phol had been notified about the lawsuit by her organisation before it was filed, but the sugar firm has not responded. She added that Mitr Phol has until June 11 to file its response to the court.

Mitr Pohl did not respond to requests for comment and representatives for the firm could not be reached by the phone.

However, it did send a statement to Reuters that “all temporary concession areas had been processed legally and transparently”. It claimed it had suggested to the Cambodian government that the land be returned to the villagers, citing business risks, adverse agricultural conditions and negative publicity as the reason for the withdrawal.

US-based rights group Inclusive Development International (IDI) issued a statement saying it was the first time a class action had been filed against a Thai firm by plaintiffs from outside the country, describing it as both "historic" and a “landmark class-action lawsuit”.

“It’s time for the big sugar buyers to put their human rights rhetoric into practice and cut off suppliers that commit such gross violations,” said David Pred, executive director of IDI.

Samroang District Governor Un Sopheak claimed the government had already solved the dispute but after villagers continued to protest, the Land Management Ministry had sent a team in 2017 to investigate the claims. “But even they could not tell where their land is. There are brokers who gathered some villagers from Siem Reap and Prey Veng to claim the land. They are liars,” he said, adding the land now belongs to the state. Land Management Ministry spokesman Seang Lot could not be reached.

A village representative, who requested anonymity fearing reprisals, said the class action had been filed after they had failed over the years to find a resolution. “If we do not have land, how can we claim it? I lost five hectares of land and my home was burned down in front of me,” they said.