A group of villagers in northwestern Cambodia have seized bulldozers and their drivers in a dispute over land clearances by a Chinese-owned firm, local media reported Wednesday.
Approximately 300 villagers from the Kuoy ethnic minority in Preah Vihear province are angry the firm has been granted a concession to develop a sugar cane plantation on land they say belongs to them, the Cambodia Daily said.
Protests about the land dispute have erupted periodically since early last year.
On Monday, a group of Kuoy surrounded 10 bulldozers belonging to the Lan Feng company and seized two, taking two drivers hostage.
Villager Poeun Choeun told The Anadolu Agency Wednesday that the drivers had been released after negotiations with provincial officials on Tuesday evening but that the bulldozers were still held by the protesters.
She said: “The bulldozer drivers were fine with us for [one day]. They had people from the company bring them food. We did not make any violence or break anything.”
The villagers have been living and farming on the land since 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power, Poeun Choeun said, adding that the company had illegally bulldozed their crops.
“They cut our resin trees and razed our farmland and crops,” she said.
Ung Vuthy, the governor of Tbeng district, where the disputed land is located, told AA the local government would hold negotiations between the villagers and company.
“It would be easy if they just demanded their land, but they are also want the company out of the commune,” he said of the villagers. “We are now working on facilitating with them and avoiding any violence.”
Cambodia’s system of land tenure was left in a shambles after decades of civil strife ended in the late 1990s but current law stipulates that anybody who has lived continuously on a piece of land for five years prior to 2001 is entitled to ownership.
However, it is common for Cambodians to lack the legal documentation proving residency and the system is often abused by developers.
It is not the first time tensions have erupted between the Kuoy in the area and Lan Feng.
In January, several Buddhist monks prominent in land-rights activism were temporarily held by military police after participating in a march with the Kuoy. Three months later the company filed suit against three villagers it accused of destroying sugar cane.
The Daily reported at the time that the villagers admitted to destroying 36 tons of sugarcane after the crop was planted on their land.