Cambodia’s northern Oddar Meanchey province is best known for its close proximity to the Thai border, which, made it the last bastion of senior Khmer Rouge leaders. The now quiet, sparsely-populated province is dominated by agriculture: mostly wet paddy rice, tapioca and soybeans.
Tourists are few, passing through only to cross into Thailand, or pass through to visit Siem Riep in the south. Eager to develop Oddar Meanchey, the Cambodian government actively encouraged national and international companies to set up large-scale rubber, sugar and other agroindustrial operations in the province.Cambodian, Thai and Vietnamese companies have all answered their call.
In 2008, one such company, the Thai sugar conglomerate Mitr Pohl Sugar Corporation, moved into Samraong, Koun Kriel, Ponggro and Chong Kal communes in Oddar Meanchey to grow its product, which at various times it has sold to companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, Nestle and Mars.
Almost as soon as the company was given permission by the Cambodian government to convert the land to a sugar plantation, government and private security forces, with alleged participation of employees of a Mitr Pohl subsidiary, proceeded to evict 2,000 farming families living in 26 villages from about 9,430 hectares of farmland, and about 200 families from their homes.
Some families watched as their homes were burnt to the ground to make way for sugar. In particular families from five villages, making up about one-third of all affected families, protested this violation of their rights, and engaged in years of public advocacy with help from NGOs. Advocacy included filing complaints with Bonsucro, a sugar industry association of which Mitr Pohl is a member.
Almost eight years later, the Bonsucro complaint mechanism has failed to deliver adequate redress for the communities; Mitr Phol remains a member. Then, in 2018, the five villages made an unprecedented, even historic, move. They filed a lawsuit in Thailand against Mitr Pohl and asked the court to process the case as a class action suit under Thailand’s fairly new class action law. Their case marked the first time a company in Thailand was sued in a Thai court for human rights violations carried out in another country.
The lawsuit claims that Mitr Phol worked with the Cambodian government to violate land, forest and human rights laws in the country. They demanded monetary compensation in an amount that will be proven at trial.
UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders Michel Forst has warned that all too often, national governments and companies work together to suppress instead of to support human rights defenders.
“Human rights defenders who are pressing for companies to be held accountable should not be criminalized or threatened.” said the Rapporteur in a statement. “They play a critical role in ensuring sustainable development and the enjoyment of fundamental rights.”
The village leaders have actively promoted their own rights as well as the rights of all affected people in the case. As a result, they have at various times been arrested, beaten and detained for prolonged periods. They have all had to endure a great deal of surveillance and general abuse by authorities.
In 2015, Mitr Phol pulled out of the plantation project, but the communities are still fighting the government to win back their land. The government has granted them some useable farmland, but in some cases, the government is trying to resettle families on land that is allegedly unusable because it’s forested or contaminated with landmines.
Many families involved haven’t been offered any land at all. And the case in Thailand against Mitr Pohl continues as the communities continue seeking justice for the harm the company caused caused them.
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