2,000 hectares of land belonging to more than 300 villagers in 10 villages was confiscated on 23 September 2009 by Okhna Ly Yong Phat, a Senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, for use as a sugar plantation. Ly Yong Phat Company was granted 9,052 hectares of land by the government as an economic land concession, affecting families in the Thpong district’s Omlaing commune.
The villagers were offered – and refused – a paltry sum $100 to $200 per hectare to abandon their farms and livelihoods. The villagers started to protest after they saw bulldozers and tractors clearing their farmlands in Omlaing commune, Thpong district.
On 17 March 2010, more than 30 soldiers from RCAF’s 313 battalion were deployed on the concession area where a number of violations occurred. The battalion is one of the military units officially sponsored by the Senator Ly Yong Phat in a patronage system, whereby private companies can sponsor specific military units.
On 18 March 2010, some 500 villagers staged a protest to stop workers of the company from clearing the land but failed to do so. Villagers then torched two makeshift shelters owned by the company.
Community representative Khem Vuthy and commune council member You Tho were then summoned for questioning at Kompong Speu provincial court on 18 March 2010. On 24 March 2010 they were detained and charged with incitement, colluding to set the structures on fire, and colluding to incite violence. Two other men were also summoned for questioning over the incident, but went into hiding after Mr. You and Mr. Vuthy were arrested.
The two representatives appeared in court on 24 March 2010. The same day, more than 500 villagers drove for hours on farming trucks to Kompong Speu town, so that they could support their community representatives. Numerous eyewitnesses have claimed that the men were not present when the structures were burnt to the ground. Mixed police lined their path, and reported the group’s progress to their superiors.
Early the next day, hundreds of other villagers headed to Kompong Speu town to also show support. At least three of them were beaten by police and seven others suffered minor injuries. Other villagers from the same group were prevented from reaching the town altogether, with police disabling the engine of one farmer’s truck. This conduct by police intimidated the villagers and severely restricted their freedom of movement and assembly.
On 26 March 2010, more than 600 villagers gathered on National Road 4, blocking the road for almost two hours, and demanded the release of their two representatives, Khem Vuth and You Tho. This led to heavy traffic congestion and prompted the deputy provincial governor, court officials and provincial police commissioner to talk with villagers. After lengthy negotiations, the villagers agreed to move and discuss the matter at the provincial court.
On 29 March 2010 Mr. You and Mr. Vuthy were released on bail and placed under surveillance.