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US Firm Prepares European Suit Against Sugar Plantation Owner

Sam Souen, an 86 year-old Cambodian woman, holds a banner asking Prime Minister Hun Sen, seen in photo at left, to help solve the problem of land grabbing.

Villagers say more than 200 families have been kicked off their land since 2006 for the sake of the Koh Kong Sugar Industry and Koh Kong Sugar Plantation.

WASHINGTON DC - A US firm is preparing a lawsuit for a European court for land allegedly taken from villagers for the development of a sugar cane plantation in Koh Kong province.

The suit alleges that Ly Yong Phat, a powerful Cambodian businessman and ruling party senator, took the land from villagers in order to grow cane used by major sugar distributors, including those in Europe.

“We have been looking at where the crop has been going, and we fully intend to pursue that action in the court where they end up,” Mark Moorstein, a lawyer with the Virginia-based Rees Broome, PC law firm, which is drafting the complaint, told VOA Khmer. When land is taken from villagers improperly, he said, the crops themselves still legally belong to them, he said.

Under a trade scheme called “Anything But Arms,” sugar produced in Cambodia enjoys preferential treatment for export to Europe, but its production has been dogged by allegations of land rights abuses by Ly Yong Phat’s plantation.

Eang Vuthy, a program manager for Equitable Cambodia, a local NGO that has started a “Clean Sugar Campaign,” said the “Anything But Arms” agreement with Cambodia has increased land grabs. “Thousand of families have been kicked out of their land and are facing food insecurity” as a result, he said.

Touch Chhay, a lawyer for Ly Yong Phat, said the villagers have not produced titles to support their claims of land ownership where the Koh Kong plantation now sits.

Villagers say more than 200 families have been kicked off their land since 2006 for the sake of the Koh Kong Sugar Industry and Koh Kong Sugar Plantation, both owned by Ly Yong Phat. The plantation’s Thai partner, the KSL Group, reportedly supplies sugar to the UK-based Tate and Lyle Sugar company.

Teng Kao, a representative of the villagers, said villagers complained to the Cambodian courts, but the complaint was thrown back to a lesser land titling office in Koh Kong, upsetting them. They now hope that outside help will move the case forward, he said.

“We have submitted our complaint to the court here, but it seems to have gone nowhere,” he said. “Outsiders may be able to talk to the government about their destructive economic land concessions,” he said.

The suit increases pressure on the Koh Kong sugar industry. Last month, European parliamentarians agreed to investigate Cambodia for the production of sugar on land taken from villagers. The Koh Kong villagers have made a separate complaint to the National Contact Point, a US agency that mediates disputes with multinational companies. That complaint is against New York-based American Sugar Refining, which allegedly uses sugar produced by Ly Yong Phat’s plantation.