A worker with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) has been intimidated and received death threats while trying to document the plight of three families involved in a bitter land dispute with a developer in the country’s capital, according to the center.
The worker, Vann Sophath, was shooting a video at the dispute site in Phnom Penh's Sangkat Boueng Kak 1 on May 9 when he was confronted by around six civilians known to work as security guards for the developer, Khun Sear Import Export Company, CCHR said in a statement.
“Vann Sophath went to the site while the Khun Sear Company security guards were demolishing the home of one of the three families,” the statement said.
“He was interrupted by a group of Khun Sear Company security guards, who were armed with knives, axes and hammers. They pushed him out of the site as other[s] threatened to cut him on the head.”
CCHR said that one of the security guards screamed at Vann Sophath, saying, “Old fool! I will not allow you to be free” and ordered others to take photos of the worker and his car’s license plate.
Vann Sophath left the site shortly after being threatened.
CCHR plans to file a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against the Khun Sear guards because of the threats made against Vann Sophath, said Chhay Chhunly, project coordinator for CCHR’s Human Rights Defenders Project, which closely tracks those working to protect human rights in Cambodia
“We think this is a serious threat,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service. “This group is a brutal group. They have attacked the villagers [involved in the land dispute with the company].”
Chhay Chhunly said that the security guards had also threatened other rights activists, but that they had targeted Vann Sophath because he was filming the three families at the site.
“We want to produce a documentary which profiles the victim families,” she said.
Vann Sophath and his team first visited Sangkat Boueng Kak 1 on April 25 to begin shooting interviews with the family of Ly Sreakheng—one of the three households involved in the dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company, which has offices on property adjacent to their homes and has been seeking to extend its property to include the residents’ land.
During the shoot, around 10 company security guards “tried to interrupt by verbally attacking Mr. Sreakheng,” CCHR said, while one of them photographed the team, focusing on Vann Sophath’s face.
CCHR said that Ly Sreakheng and the two other families have been living on the plot since 1982, prior to which it had been occupied by the Vietnamese army after invading Cambodia in 1979 and driving out the notorious Khmer Rouge regime.
The three families have repeatedly attempted to register the land under the country’s 2001 Land Law, but have been ignored by the authorities, CCHR said.
On Oct. 4, 2010, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers granted the land to Khun Sear and, in order to facilitate the transfer, the Phnom Penh municipal government in 2013 issued a certificate stating that the site belongs to the state.
Since then, Khun Sear has claimed ownership of the land and has repeatedly harassed the three families, destroying crops, disconnecting electricity, damaging property and beating the residents, CCHR said.
In October last year, ahead of a protest march on City Hall by dozens of residents involved in land disputes in the capital, the three families found three poisonous cobra snakes had been placed near their homes.
Days earlier, after company employees had threatened the families about killing their pets, two of their cats and one of their dogs were poisoned to death and left on the doorstep, unidentified persons sprayed insecticide on one of the houses, and others harassed customers at one of the families’ businesses, according to a statement by rights groups.
Ly Sreakheng and his family members have requested intervention from nongovernmental organizations, including CCHR, regarding security and mediation in finding a solution to the land dispute.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights to Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.