Friday, February 24, 2012

Villagers take hostages

The clearing of land for a Ratanakkiri rubber plantation had been frozen after more than 300 Tumpoun ethnic minority villagers captured a quartet of company security guards and another staffer, tied them up and held them hostage on Tuesday, company officials said yesterday.

Ratha Visal/Phnom Penh Post
Five employees of Jing Zhong Ri Cambodia Co Ltd tied up yesterday in Ratanakkiri province’s Lumphat district after a dispute with local residents.
Jing Zhong Ri Cambodia Co Ltd was granted a 70-year, 9,000-hectare “sustainable use zone” concession in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district in May and recently began clearing the area.

Tumpoun villagers claim the company has no right to bulldoze their farmland.

On Tuesday morning, they launched an offensive against JZR company property, tearing apart a bulldozer and another vehicle before advancing towards the company’s environmental office, Lumphat police chief Suoy Phay told the Post.

Village representative Tuy Nheb said that as the villagers were advancing, the environmental officer and security guards fired shots in the air and threatened the villagers with their guns.

Rather than dispersing, the villagers, armed with sticks, knives and sickles, descended on the environmental officer and guards, capturing all five about 10am, villagers and authorities said. Suoy Phay said the villagers had detained the five company employees at the commune hall and held them hostage there, binding their limbs.

Ethnic villagers subsequently tore apart the environmental officer’s office and demanded the company immediately cease bulldozing their farmland.

“The company employees detained were finally freed about noon on Tuesday after mediation between the villagers and local authority was successful,” Suoy Phay said.“The villagers, by themselves, arrested public officials illegally, because there is not a verdict from the court, and this action is regarded as an illegal detention,” he said.Two of the detained security guards were moonlighting local police officers and the other two were moonlighting RCAF soldiers.

As of press time yesterday, the local court had not issued an arrest warrant for any villagers and none of the villagers, the detained employees or the company had registered an official complaint with authorities. Company administrator Chhay Em told the Post yesterday the freeze on the company’s bulldozing of concession land would be in place until a solution could be reached between local authorities and the villagers to prevent further violence.

“The villagers are completely naïve, because the company’s investment is to promote national development,” Chhay Em said.“Any destruction of company property destroys their country, and what we have been doing is in line with the law.”Tumpoun representative Tuy Nheb said the detention was a desperate act to stop the company razing their land and retaliation to being threatened with gunfire.

“The villagers just want to protect their land, it is not illegal,” Tuy Nheb said.

Pen Bunna, co-ordinator of Adhoc, said the company had not yet been licensed to raze the land in their concession and had been given a green light by the government only to conduct an investment study.

“The solution here was only reached after the villagers’ violence, and it sets a good example for all communities to protest after their cause is ignored by the local authority and legislative institution,” Pen Bunna said.