Phnom Penh, Cambodia – After years of protesting, two Cambodian farmers make their case this week in a Bangkok court against Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol, who they blame for the loss of their livelihoods.
The stakes are high for the farmers and the company.
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The villagers from Cambodia are trying to convince the court that their claim is worthy of being treated as a class action, a rare occurrence in Thai legal history. If they succeed, their claim could open the door to hundreds more plaintiffs who also say Mitr Phol ruined their lives. If they fail, they say it would probably be too expensive for them to continue their fight.
For Mitr Phol, the cost of losing the case could climb into the millions of dollars, according to a non-governmental body fighting for the farmers. But Mitr Phol denies being responsible for their plight.
“They took our land,” Hoy Mai, one of the two farmers, told Al Jazeera. “I lost everything. My children did not go to school and I had no farming land … I survive by the day,” said Mai, the anger showing on her face.
The 56-year old woman was arrested in October 2009 after she and other farmers protested against their land being forcibly taken to make way for sugar production by Mitr Phol’s subsidiary Angkor Sugar.
Earlier that month, about 100 houses, including hers, were burned down. She was arrested along with a handful of other activists on what she claims were spurious charges. Being pregnant at the time, Mai endured what she describes as “horrible conditions” and gave birth while being held.
“I delivered the baby in a hospital. As soon as I delivered I was sent back to prison with my baby,” she said in an interview in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. “I was not even given a day to rest.”
She and fellow farmer Smen Te, 62, have now travelled to neighbouring Thailand to testify in front of a Bangkok court. In April last year, they lodged a complaint against Mitr Phol to represent 711 families in Oddar Meanchey province who had lost their land.
The hearings scheduled until Friday will build the basis for a court decision that is expected in a few months. The ruling will determine whether the cases are similar enough to proceed with their class action suit.
The farmers stand against an industry giant.
Mitr Phol says it is the world’s fifth-biggest sugar company and the largest such firm in Thailand. Last year, it recorded a revenue of 95 billion Thai baht ($3bn) and a profit of $30.5m.
The two Cambodian villagers bringing the case to Bangkok are claiming damages totalling about four million Thai baht ($128,000). The land rights non-governmental organisation supporting them in their fight, Equitable Cambodia, declined to give a figure for how much the 711 households that were affected by the land clearing could receive in compensation if the case was to be granted class-action status. But a representative for the NGO says it could run into the millions of dollars.
After eight months in prison, Mai was released. Her husband returned from Thailand, where he and their children had worked as construction workers during her absence to make a living, she told Al Jazeera. Within a month, he was dead.
Mai blames Mitr Phol for the loss of her husband: the hospital told her he had suffered a stroke due to high blood pressure. She said stress caused by the land dispute and an arrest warrant issued against him in connection to the case triggered this.
Mitr Phol rejects allegations
The company rejects all responsibility for the plight of the farmers. After the Thai court initially accepted the complaint – but said the two parties should attempt to settle the matter outside court – the company rejected negotiation attempts, according to human rights group Inclusive Development International.
But Mitr Phol disagrees.
“We’ve only got the temporary land concessions from the Cambodian government and never had any sugar operations there. After we investigated concession land and found it not suitable for cane planting, then we returned all the lands to the government and closed all the companies there,” said Krisda Monthienvichienchai, Vice Chairman of Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation’s Executive Committee, in an email to Al Jazeera.
Eang Vuthy, director of Equitable Cambodia, said although the company did not possess the land anymore, the villagers have yet to see their land returned.
“Mitr Phol has failed to respond to the claims by community members particularly after the land was deemed unfit for the purpose of growing sugar despite having been illegally taken from community members in 2008,” he told Al Jazeera in a message. “What is more, the land was returned not to the people but to the Royal Government of Cambodia in 2015.”
But again, Mitr Phol’s Krisda said this was not his company’s responsibility. “We got the land from government so that’s why we had to return and got the approval from the government,” he said.
For plaintiff Smen Te, this is not enough. He did receive some land in compensation – two hectares for the five hectares he says he lost – but it was unsuitable for farming, he said. “They pressured us: ‘You take it or you leave it.’ So I took the two hectares,” he said. “We want them to hear us, to compensate us, not to ignore us.”
Equitable Cambodia’s Vuthy explained that while class action litigation was a relatively new legal concept in Thailand, his organisation is “extremely hopeful” that the case would be granted this status.
Most of the households that were affected by the land clearing would find it too expensive to continue the case unless they are allowed to band together, Vuthy says.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights Business and Human Rights Project Coordinator Vann Sophath, meanwhile, said responsibility should also extend to Bonsucro, a global sugar industry organisation that aims to “promote sustainable sugar cane” farming and of which Mitr Phol is a member.
Sophath urged Bonsucro to expel Mitr Phol and set conditions for the company to resolve the dispute before being re-admitted.
In a report published last week, Bonsucro praised one of Mitr Phol’s sugar factories they visited earlier this year as being an example of sustainability, proving “that responsibility for their social and environmental impact is a common goal within [Mitr Phol]”.
Multiple Bonsucro representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The organisation in the past had stressed that the dispute was a matter between Mitr Phol and the farmers, and did not involve Bonsucro.
While the land taken in Cambodia may be just one of many projects for the sugar company, the villagers’ livelihoods depend on it.
“For us, it is our life,” Mai said.