Story by Leila Goldstein
Additional reporting by Seoung Nimol, Burapad Chanpratad and Pongpan Chumjai.
Translation and additional reporting by Lay Sophana.
Hoy Mai, a plaintiff in a historic class action lawsuit, removes weeds on her farm of cassava plants. She lost five hectares of farmland in Oddar Meanchey after the Cambodian government granted an economic land concession in 2008 to a subsidiary of the Thai sugar company Mitr Phol. (Lay Sophanna)
Hoy Mai sits on the floor in her spare brick house in Oddar Meanchey province in northern Cambodia.
Spread out on a hammock, playing on a cell phone behind her, is her son. He was born 13 years ago while Mai was in prison after fighting back against a Thai sugar company taking control of her community’s land.
The 61-year-old mother of eight is one of the plaintiffs, along with over 700 other families, in a landmark lawsuit in Thai court, moving forward Monday with a hearing where both sides will present evidence.
The case is historic: it’s the first transboundary class action human rights lawsuit in Thailand, with Cambodian farmers seeking justice for lost land, forced evictions and stunted livelihoods from the Thai corporation Mitr Phol, one of the largest sugar producers in the world.
The long-awaited hearing for Mai and her neighbors will take place in Bangkok, over 300 kilometers away from where the Cambodian villagers' homes were burned down to make way for a plantation run by Mitr Phol 15 years ago.
“Justice is my main motivation. The law lets us know who is right or wrong, and gives us the right to fight and stand up for ourselves,” she says. “If we decide not to defend ourselves, what will we get?”
In 2008, the Cambodian government granted Economic Land Concessions to three subsidiaries of Mitr Phol: Angor Sugar, Tonle Sugar Cane and Cane and Sugar Valley. As the company moved forward with plans to build sugarcane plantations in Oddar Meanchey, families were forced off of land, police set fire to homes and some residents were imprisoned.
Community members filed multiple complaints and requested intervention from Cambodian authorities between 2007 and 2009, and faced harassment and arrests in response, according to the NGO Inclusive Development International.
Another Cambodian community affected by a Thai sugar producer has pursued cross-border human rights litigation in U.K. courts, seeking justice and accountability from a multinational corporation. But this case in Thailand could set a new standard in the region, as some of the most marginalized people in Cambodia fight back in their neighboring country against Mitr Phol, which has supplied brands including Nestlé, Mars and Coca-Cola.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers have utilized the U.S. Foreign Legal Assistance statute to get access to private documents from Coca-Cola. A federal court in the state of Georgia ordered the release of documents that were then authenticated for the purposes of the ongoing Thai litigation.
At the Monday hearing, these documents may be presented in court as evidence. The records could reveal what the most iconic U.S. beverage brand knew about Mitr Phol’s actions in Cambodia, and what came out of Coca-Cola’s 2014 internal investigation of its Thai supplier.
A road near Hoy Mai’s home in Oddar Meanchey, in an area where homes were burned down and land was taken from villagers to make way for a planned sugar plantation. (Lay Sophanna)
A Long Road
For Mai, from the beginning, documents have been a part of her resistance.
Despite pressure from village officials, and although Mai was mostly illiterate, she refused to sign a form to surrender her five hectares of farmland in exchange for other land to make way for the sugar plantation in 2008.
“I absolutely didn’t give my thumbprint,” she says. “I was nervous because they [local officials] said they had an arrest warrant and if I didn’t comply, the warrant would be executed.”
Following her refusal, other villagers also declined. She says officials then accused her of being a “mastermind” behind the resistance and persuading others not to comply. She was then charged with illegally clearing forestland, even though she says she never cleared unauthorized land.
She knew she could be arrested soon, and decided to join about 10 other villagers on an over 300 kilometer journey from her home to Phnom Penh to seek justice, wanting the national government to intervene in what she hoped was merely local corruption.
She remembers hiking through rain and sleeping in damp clothes, seeing crocodiles as she crossed streams on foot and on a make-shift raft crafted from found timber. And her hunger, quelled only temporarily by velvet tamarind fruits she picked along the way.
“I was extremely terrified. I didn’t think I would make it alive because I had to flee while I was pregnant,” she says. “I was trying to tell myself that I could make it. I wouldn’t accept the new land.”
Once in the capital city, she approached the Office of the Council of Ministers, seeking to present her case to then-Prime Minister Hun Sen. But Mai was detained before she could enter the building, and spent eight months in prison.
Since her release in 2010, Mai, along with other villagers, has collaborated with advocates from Cambodian NGOs and international partners, including Licadho, Inclusive Development International and Earth Rights International.
The advocacy groups worked with villagers to file complaints with the sugar industry governance group Bonsucro, the UK National Contact Point of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. The NGOs also urged large buyers of Mitr Phol’s sugar to hold the company accountable. Mitr Phol withdrew from its Cambodian land concessions in 2015 amid public scrutiny and following Coca-Cola’s 2013 pledge of “zero tolerance for land grabbing.”
Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, another organization advocating for the villagers, says the group got involved right after the evictions started in 2008. The NGO was already supporting victims in a similar case in Koh Kong involving a Thai sugar supplier, KSL Group, of the British company Tate & Lyle. That case was settled out of U.K. court, and some Koh Kong villagers received settlement payments earlier this year.
Vuthy believes that despite the Thai class action lawsuit being adjudicated outside Cambodia, a winning result in a court across the border could set an example and create an important source of pressure on the Cambodian government: shame.
“It is good for the Cambodian government to see this happen, so that they probably in the future can also set a similar legal process here inside Cambodia,” he says. “It's not just for Cambodian communities, but also [other countries] in this region can probably follow.”
The affected villagers continue to participate in an ongoing land resolution process with the Cambodian government, seeking land parcels and titles. In 2017, the Cambodian government formed a special working group to manage land issues resulting from sugarcane plantations in several provinces, offering 1.5 hectares of land to about 300 families in Oddar Meanchey in 2018 through Social Land Concessions.
But some plaintiffs in the lawsuit noted that the plots of land they received were smaller or lower quality compared to their original farmland lost to the Mitr Phol plantation site. Mai, for instance, received about two hectares of land in 2018 where she grows cassava and rice. She makes under $200 a month, less than half of what she was able to earn on her original five hectares.
Hoy Mai stands in front of her field of cassava plants, where she makes less than half of what she was able to earn on her original five hectares of land. (Lay Sophanna)
But in addition to the Cambodian government, Vuthy says Mitr Phol also has an obligation to the villagers. He noted that when Mitr Phol abandoned the proposed plantation sites, the company advised the Cambodian government to return land titles to the villagers. He views this as an admission of wrongdoing from the company.
“The obligation does not end there because they [Mitr Phol] were involved in the evictions, they were involved in forest destruction, they have to provide a remedy,” he says. “That's why this litigation is now happening in Thailand, to seek reparations for the human rights violations caused by the company.”
Mitr Phol, Coca-Cola, Cambodian government spokesperson Pen Bona as well as spokespeople for the Agriculture Ministry and the Land Management Ministry did respond to requests for comment. Un Sopheak, a spokesperson for Oddar Meanchey province, said he did not know about this case.
“As a state agency, we can not provide the information to VOD and its alliances agencies anymore as it is not valid in Cambodia,” said Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin in a message responding to a CamboJA reporter’s request for comment. CamboJA has no affiliation with VOD, the independent Cambodian news outlet shut down by the government in February. Malin did not provide responses to the questions when corrected.
Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, a Thai lawyer representing the plaintiffs and executive coordinator of the Community Resource Centre Foundation, explains that class action litigation was a more practical approach in this case so that the 700 Cambodian families did not need to pursue individual lawsuits.
The case involves tort law, in which plaintiffs are seeking compensation for harm related to property damage and lost livelihoods. Farmers had their crops destroyed and farmland taken away, but also lost income sources directly linked to the local ecosystem.
“They [villagers] used to go to the community forest to collect the mushrooms, plants and other things,” but were prevented from doing so once the company took over the land, Polka says. “They could not get to the natural water because the company also blocked the waterway.”
Mitr Phol has sought dismissal of the case twice since 2018. And even after the Coca-Cola documents were turned over, there was a lengthy U.S. government authentication process before the papers were approved to be used in court. The international nature of the lawsuit requires that much of the evidence be translated between three languages: Thai, Khmer and English.
Polka hopes that this case will have an impact on the region, noting that justice should not be hindered by national borders just as businesses are not limited by these boundaries.
“Because now there are global, worldwide investments, everyone goes outside their country to invest in another country,” she says. “This case is also showing that whenever there is some violation, the victims have another opportunity to seek the remedies from other [countries], not only the justice in their country.”
Ma Eukchoeun, 57, is a plaintiff in the landmark class action lawsuit against Mitr Phol. He served eight months in prison, charged with violations of Cambodia’s Forestry Law. (Lay Sophanna)
On a September morning in a Siem Reap hotel meeting room, plaintiff Ma Okchoeurn met with other Oddar Meanchey villagers and their international team of lawyers to discuss the next steps in the lawsuit.
The 57-year-old with just a few grays peeking out from his dark head of hair talked about his life when he was a younger man, before the Mitr Phol land concessions were granted. He was able to support his family by farming on the land and his children were able to attend school. When he first heard about the proposed plantation, he was optimistic, thinking it could bring in jobs for locals.
But soon he was unhappy with the arrangement put forward by the government.
“The proposed land we were being relocated to was unacceptable to us because the land plots designated for the evictees were smaller and not suitable for cultivation like the land we were living on before,” he says. “As a result, we did not want to relocate to the new place. We decided to stay put.”
He voiced his discontent with the proposed land exchange in meetings with provincial officials, and believes he was targeted and monitored after that because he was seen as “hardheaded.”
Soon, he was sentenced to two years in prison, charged with violations of Cambodia’s Forestry Law. He recounted what it felt like to find out from a prison cell that his village had been destroyed.
“I was so terrified and trembling because the houses were being burned down while I was stuck in prison,” he says, his eyes welling up behind his glasses. “I was thinking about how I had no house, about my wife, and about how my kids wouldn’t be able to attend school.”
After he served eight months in prison and was released, he struggled to make ends meet without his land. He had to resort to picking up bottles on the street for money, earning just enough to get by each day.
With financial assistance and support from local NGOs, Okchoeurn has been active in efforts to gain justice for his community. He too received two hectares of land from the government, but says the lower quality soil is not conducive for farming and he still does not have a hard land title.
His “hardheadedness” has kept Okchoeurn hopeful through the long legal process, as more organizations have gotten involved and the case has received international attention.
“I would like to share my personal story to the powerful people and the large companies in the West and in Europe,” he says. “If you comply with the law in your country from the beginning, you should continue to use that law elsewhere. Do not take advantage of another country where people are already oppressed and hurt the people even more.”