Evidence examination hearing in Mitr Phol lawsuit postponed to 2024

The class action lawsuit filed by Cambodian farmers for damages caused by the sugar company Mitr Phol has been ongoing for 5 years. Recently, the court postponed the evidence examination hearing, asking the attorneys of both the plaintiff and the defendant to gather and do new translations of documents by 27 March 2024. The court has emphasized to both parties that only documents submitted at the hearing will be used in the trial.

The team of lawyers from the Community Resource Centre and the Legal Rights and Environmental Protection Association, and representatives of Cambodian villagers at the South Bangkok Civil Court on 6 November 2023. (Photo: Burapat Chanpratad)

An evidence examination hearing was scheduled for 6 November 2023 at Bangkok South Civil Court, for a lawsuit filed by Cambodian farmer Hoy Mai and 2 others against Mitr Phol Sugar Corp., Ltd.

The plaintiffs’ attorney explains that foreign documents which need a warrant to be submitted to the court have to be translated into Thai. Documents from a court in the US have already been received but are still being translated and all of the documentary evidence will be ready for submission to the court by the end of February 2024.

The defendant’s attorney, meanwhile, told the Court that they are waiting for official documents from Cambodia, including court rulings and the concession contract from the Cambodian government, which require time to gather and translate but will be ready by the end of February 2024. Both parties requested that the trial be postponed.

Since the documents mentioned by both parties are important in the questioning of both sides, the Court has allowed the evidence examination hearing to be postponed to 27 March 2024 at 9.00. The court said that only documents submitted by the time of the hearing will be used during the trial.

Sor. Rattanamanee Polkla, lawyer and coordinator of the Community Resource Centre Foundation, representing the Cambodian farmers suing Mitr Phol. (Photo: Burapat Chanpratad)

An evidence examination hearing was scheduled for 6 November 2023 at Bangkok South Civil Court, for a lawsuit filed by Cambodian farmer Hoy Mai and 2 others against Mitr Phol Sugar Corp., Ltd.

The plaintiffs’ attorney explains that foreign documents which need a warrant to be submitted to the court have to be translated into Thai. Documents from a court in the US have already been received but are still being translated and all of the documentary evidence will be ready for submission to the court by the end of February 2024.

The defendant’s attorney, meanwhile, told the Court that they are waiting for official documents from Cambodia, including court rulings and the concession contract from the Cambodian government, which require time to gather and translate but will be ready by the end of February 2024. Both parties requested that the trial be postponed.

Since the documents mentioned by both parties are important in the questioning of both sides, the Court has allowed the evidence examination hearing to be postponed to 27 March 2024 at 9.00. The court said that only documents submitted by the time of the hearing will be used during the trial.

Sor. Rattanamanee Polkla, coordinator of the Community Resource Centre Foundation and the lawyer representing the Cambodian farmers, said “There are documents all of which require translation into Thai by February 2024 and can be submitted to the court. So, the court has set a date on 27 March 2024. The court has emphasized that whatever documents are available for submission will be accepted. Other documents that are not submitted will not be taken into consideration. It will be taken as the final day of evidence examination.”

The lawyer representing Mitr Phol declined an interview.

On the same day (6 November 2023), the International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International submitted an amicus curiae brief on the case, making legal recommendations to the judges presiding over the case.

The first transborder class action lawsuit in Thailand

Bangkok South Civil Court, Charoen Krung Road, Bangkok. (Photo: Burapat Chanpratad)

This lawsuit was filed in 2018 as a class action case in the Civil Court. Hoy Mai and Smin Tet, together with villagers from 23 out of 700 families of Bos, O’ Bat Moan, Taman, Trapain and Ktum villages in Koun Kriel Commune, Samraong District, Oddar Meanchey Province in western Cambodia jointly filed a lawsuit against Mitr Phol Sugar Corp., Ltd. on the grounds that their rights were violated by the action of Angkor Sugar Company, a subsidiary company of Mitr Phol in Cambodia. The lawsuit calls for Mitr Phol to pay compensation of over 300 million baht, plus interest, to the plaintiffs and members of the class of 23 families.

The lawsuit is seeking compensation for medical expenses and hospital fees, damages to property, including houses and crops that were burnt down, and for human right violations caused by the sugar cane concession from the Cambodian government which allowed private companies to use land on which communities were already living and farming. It is the first class action lawsuit filed in a Thai court against a transnational Thai company for the human rights impact of its investment in another country.   

The lawsuit stemmed from a complaint filed by Cambodian people in Samraong and Chong Kal districts of Oddar Meanchey Province, claiming that Mitr Phol forced them to leave their lands in 2008-2009 in order to transform the land into a large sugarcane plantation to supply Mitr Phol’s subsidiary companies, including Angkor Sugar Company. Included in the 9,430 hectares of land is a community forest jointly managed by members of 26 communities. The plantation project eventually failed, and Mitr Phol’s subsidiary company closed down. However, the villagers remain affected to this day. The court accepted the class action lawsuit on 31 July 2018. 

In 2015, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) issued a report after receiving a complaint that Mitr Phol was directly responsible for what happened in Cambodia and suggested that it compensate the victims.

In the  NHRC report, dated 12 October 2015, the villagers alleged that a representative company of Mitr Phol seized the land of the local people illegally by destroying houses and killing livestock.  The village was set on fire and crops were destroyed.  

Mitr Phol is Thailand’s largest sugar producer and is among the 3 largest sugar producers in the world. Isara Vongkusolkit, Mitr Phol Group’s board president, is also a former president of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade of Thailand.

Mitr Phol told the NHRC that, of its investment project in Cambodia, one company is a direct investment and another is a joint venture with 2 other companies, and that it received a land concession of about 110,000 rai. However, it said that the Mitr Phol Group does not support encroachment on land that belongs to others, including the forcibly seizure of land or destruction of property. Its investment in Cambodia was conducted in accordance with Cambodian law and in compliance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Under the agreement as stated in the contract, the Cambodian government would conduct the survey and allocate land concessions for agriculture to Mitr Phol Group. If land expropriation was necessary, government officials would be responsible for negotiating until a resolution is reached.     

Mitr Phol decided to stop the project in 2014 and returned the land to the government. It also suggested that the Cambodian Government return the right to land for the villagers, but the villagers’ lawyer said most have not received their land back from the government.

In a 2018 BBC Thai report, Mitr Phol explained via email correspondence that its investment project was in collaboration with the Cambodian government and that it received temporary land concessions from the government legally at both national and local levels. It also said that it received confirmation from government officials that the land involved in the temporary concessions was acquired in a transparent and legal manner. 

Green News reported that the Bangkok South Civil Court accepted the class action lawsuit on 31 July 2020, after the Court of First Instance did not allow it to be filed as a class action. The Court of Appeal has examined the statements of the consultation meeting and concluded that the damage to houses and property of some members of a group of 23 families out of 700 families is considered as the same violation to a group of individuals. The group also has the same demands, and although there are different damages, filing the lawsuit as a class action saves time and expense, as well as prevents repetition in proceeding with the case and conflicts on judgments.    

Transborder News reported that on 18 May 2022, the South Bangkok Civil Court ruled on an appeal filed by Mitr Phol regarding the order of the Court of First Instance not accepting the case, after it requested that the Court of First Instance rule whether the case’s one-year statute of limitation has expired under Thai law. It asked the court to make a ruling before evidence examination, but the Court of First Instance dismissed the appeal and ordered the evidence examination to proceed. The Court of Appeal also dismissed the appeal on the grounds that the order made by the Court of First Instance is justified.

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