Villagers from Oddar Meanchey used a news conference yesterday to appeal for government action to return land at the centre of a years-old dispute with sugar companies.
The conflict erupted in 2008, when villagers were forcibly evicted from their land to allow Angkor Sugar, Tonle Sugar Cane, and Cane & Valley Sugar to start operations on economic land concessions in Samroang and Chongkal districts. The evictions led to migrations across the Thai border that still continue to this day, villagers say.
“We migrate to Thailand because we lost our land and don’t have any income anymore,” said Houy Mai, one of several representatives of the more than 250 families evicted to make way for the sugar companies, only to see the land given to the state in 2015.
“The authorities promised us that they will settle the issue as fast as they can,” she said. Villagers have filed complaints with ministries, including the Ministry of Land Management, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Justice and the cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen. So far they have had only non-committal answers from authorities.
In mid-2015, Thailand’s Mitr Phol, Asia’s biggest sugar concern, which was behind the project, pulled out of the deal following allegations of human rights violations and surrendered the land to the state. It is now administered by the Ministry of Agriculture but villagers say they are now landless and without compensation.
“So far we have received no compensation,” community representative Sman Te told reporters, adding that locals would accept an offer in place of their original land if it was sufficient.
The problem, he said, was that they never had received official land titles.
Another displaced villager Ang Choeun said he had been jailed for 18 months and accused of deforestation and “encroaching on the forest” when he refused to leave land he considered his. He added that now he didn’t dare go back for fear officials “accuse me of trying to instigate people and . . . put me in jail again”.
He also explained that with the upcoming elections, pressure was increasing on NGOs who might offer support to the displaced villagers.
Adding that he used to be a soldier, Choeun said, “When there is a problem with Thailand in Preah Vihear, [the government] sends me to the battlefield. When we have a problem, why do they not send anyone to solve the problem?”