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Victims of Land Grabs, High Prices Gather in Capital

Dozens of villagers from two rural provinces gathered in Phnom Penh to express their grievances over the theft of land and excessive market-stall prices.

Land grab victims from Koh Kong chose to voice their disputes by camping in front of the National Assembly building, while vendors from Battambang province demonstrated in front of the prime minister's house.

Land grabs and high prices are increasingly squeezing everyday Cambodians; victims with no other resort often travel many miles to be heard by government representatives outside their home provinces, where leaders can be corrupt or above the law.

Villagers from Koh Kong province who say their land was taken have been sitting under trees at Wat Botum, a pagoda near the National Assembly, awaiting a meeting with representatives. So far, they have had no luck.

More than 5,000 hectares of land belonging to 549 families were taken, victim Nae Phaan, a villager from Srae Ambel town, said.

"The company cleared the concession land, along with the people's crops and houses, leaving no evidence," he said.

A Cambodian People's Party senator owns the company responsible, he said, but the villagers plan to stay until they are heard.

Prime Minister Hun Sen recently declared war on land-grabbers, a move critics decried as political. Instances where government or military officials take land from rural peasants will likely be a key issue as Cambodians go to the polls April 1 for commune elections.

Meanwhile, demonstrators gathered in front of Hun Sen's Phnom Penh residence Monday to protest the high price of rental for market stalls in Beung Chhuk village, Battambang province.

Armed soldiers were present but no violence was reported.

Protesters held banners decrying Beung Chhuk's market chief and carried a letter addressed to Hun Sen.

"The price has doubled," Kim Heang, a clothing stall owner, said. "They put pressure on us. I cannot make it."

Market chief Tan Chhun could not be reached for comment.