April 2, 2018 / 9:33 AM / 17 days ago

Cambodian farmers sue Thai sugar group Mitr Phol over alleged land grab

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Farmers from Cambodia have filed a lawsuit in a Thai civil court against Asia’s largest sugar producer, accusing it of rights abuses after it allegedly kicked farmers off their land, a rights group said on Monday.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 3,000 people, is the first class-action lawsuit filed in a Thai court by plaintiffs from another country against a Thai company operating outside Thailand, the group, Inclusive Development International, said in a statement.

The plaintiffs accuse sugar producer Mitr Phol [MIDSMP.UL] of violently displacing them in Cambodia’s northwestern Oddar Meanchey province between 2008 and 2009 to make way for plantations.

“Since Mitr Phol took my land, my family and I have suffered tremendously,” Ma Okchoeurn, one of the affected people, said in a press release issued by the rights group.

“My house was burned down. I was arrested without reason, and as a result my family had nothing to eat and had to collect trash to survive. To this day, I have no land or house.”

Mitr Phol said in a statement emailed to Reuters it had invested in Cambodia in “a good faith partnership” with the government and got temporary concessions in compliance with all local and national laws and with assurances from authorities that “all temporary concession areas had been processed legally and transparently”.

It said it had withdrawn from the project in 2014 due to a combination of factors including political tensions along the Thai-Cambodia border, business risks, adverse agricultural conditions and negative publicity.

Mitr Phol said after it withdrew from the project, it had recommended that the Cambodian government return land “to the affected communities”.

Seng Loth, a spokesman at Land Management Ministry, which was responsible for the government’s involvement in the project, said when contacted by Reuters he was in a meeting and too busy to comment.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he could not comment and referred queries to the Land Management Ministry.

Cambodia has awarded big concessions to foreign companies, mainly from China, Vietnam and South Korea, to operate mines, power plants and farms, in order to attract foreign investment.

Rights groups have said some concessions have led to forced evictions and land disputes.

Reporting by Prak Chan Thul in PHNOM PENH and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in BANGKOK; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel

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