Forestry officials in Kampong Thom province arrested six villagers on Wednesday, accusing them of illegal settlement and deforestation.
The five men and one woman are representatives of a development village for disabled people in Son Touk district.
“Today, we are preparing a report seeking to prove that they have destroyed reserved forest resources,” Kampong Thom Deputy Governor Heng Sam An said. “We noticed they started destroying the forest since 2006.”
However, villagers say they had not settled illegally, and a human rights official called their arrests illegal.
“The arrests did not confirm with legal processes, because they did not have an arrest warrant,” said Ngoung Samoeurn, a provincial coordinator for the rights group Licadho.
Authorities and villagers have had a dispute over the area since earlier this year, following the investment of a Vietnamese company, Chin Bien, in a rubber plantation where the villagers were living, Ngoung Samoeurn said. “The conflict froze during the election period,” he said.
However, Heng Sam An said the villagers had not been arrested for settling in the investment area but had been occupying protected forest.
Around 90 villagers arrived in Kampong Thom town Thursday to protest the arrests.
“We have been living in that area since 2004,” said Neang Sinath, a representative of the villagers. “We were recognized by [Prime Minister] Hun Sen to create the village.”
“If they do not release our villagers, we will not go back home,” she said.
Heng Sam An said the villagers will be removed from their settlement to another site, a plan the villagers reject.
“They cannot live in the new place, because there is malaria and flooding in the area,” Ngoung Samoeurn said. “It is 20 kilometers from the actual village.”