Minority villagers who are caught up in a land dispute with the sister of Cambodia’s Finance Minister say they have waited years for the courts to look at their complaints. But in this remote part of the country, they say, they have had little luck getting a judge willing to take on the case.
The land dispute is centered around Kong Yu village in Ratanakkiri province. Villagers here say they have waited four years to have a hearing for their complaints against Keat Kolney, the sister of Keat Chhon, who is the Finance Minister and holds the position of Deputy Prime Minister.
They made their complaint in January 2007, claiming they had been tricked out of their ancestral land for a rubber plantation backed by Keat Kolney.
“The land grabber is a big person,” said Lmam Phil, a representative of the villagers, who belong to the Jarai minority. “But the judge is a small one, as the villagers and myself understand it.” That means no judge will touch the case, for fear of retribution, he said.
More than 50 families have signed onto the complaint against Keat Kolney, claiming they were deceived into thumb-printing land sale agreements while they were plied with rice wine at a party held by Keat Kolney more than four years ago.
Many of the villagers are illiterate, and they say they depend on the communal land for their food and traditional rituals.
“We can no longer work on that land as it has all been taken away, so it is very difficult for us,” Lmam Phil said. “We used to cultivate, herd cattle, look for animals and vegetables, like bamboo shoots, and harvest rice there, but now it has been cleared. When we complained, no action was taken.”
Provincial court officials said they have not been inactive, but argue that improper appointments and procedures have led to delays. Keat Kolney could not be reached for comment, but she has been quoted in local media saying the land deal was fair and legal.
Romas Net, the chief of Kong Yu village, said he originally supported the villagers, but he has since changed his position.
“The villagers have been angry for a long time, but they cannot win,” he said. “There’s no use in complaining.”
Nevertheless, rights workers and a lawyer for the villagers said the court’s failure to even take up the case has broad significance.
“The court has to rule quickly, so that it can provide a model for other cases across the province,” said Pen Bonna, the local coordinator for the rights group Adhoc.
If the case is ignored for too long, everyday Cambodians will lose their trust in the judicial system, he said, and take matters into their own hands.