Authorities in Cambodia’s Kratie province on Monday released eight villagers who were detained amid a violent clash over a land dispute, on the condition that they refrain from holding future demonstrations, according to one of those held.
On March 8, police in Kratie’s Snuol district opened fire on a group of people protesting over the long-running dispute with a rubber plantation, killing as many as eight people and injuring dozens of others, according to sources, and prompting a call from United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, who happens to be visiting Cambodia, for an independent investigation into the incident.
Resident Tin Pheak told RFA’s Khmer Service last week that more than 400 residents of Snuol’s 2 Thnou commune blocked National Road 76A for three hours, beginning around 9:00 a.m., after workers from the Memot Rubber Plantation and security forces burned down the huts and razed the farms of 300 villagers locked in a dispute over ownership of the land.
Around 150 soldiers, police and military police were deployed to remove protesters from National Road 76A and security forces fired on residents during the ensuing confrontation, Tin Pheak said, adding that she “saw two people were killed right away and another two injured.” The villager was taken into custody a day later and recanted her claims in an interview with government-aligned Fresh News media.
Authorities arrested eight people for their role in the clash and seven were questioned about their role in the incident in court on Saturday.
All eight were later released, one of those detained told RFA on Monday, after a court official warned them they would be “arrested and face jail time” if they do not stop protesting over the land dispute.
The resident of 2 Thnou commune, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he believed the court’s threat and expressed “fear for my safety,” adding that he and the others who were detained are required to meet with Snuol district authorities on Wednesday.
The Phnom Penh Post said in a report Monday that it had independently verified the identities of five of those who were detained: Leak Sat, 44; Kim Nai, 23; Poung Phal, 36; Vem Duy, 64; and Buth Vorn, 55, who it said is currently receiving treatment in hospital and has yet to be questioned. It quoted Kratie Provincial Court director Din Sivuthy as saying the eight were facing “two or three charges,” without elaborating.
The Post also cited Kratie Provincial Court prosecutor Keo Socheat, who led an investigation into the incident, as saying Tin Pheak’s admission that she lied proved claims about the killings were untrue.
When asked if he had interviewed other villagers or visited the protest site, Socheat he had not carried out any further investigation, as he had “just searched to find out the truth whether there are people dead as the media said.” He also refused to answer questions about why police had opened fire on the villagers and whether the use of force was justified.
Meanwhile, security personnel have denied members of civil society organizations and the media access to the site of the incident, hampering efforts to investigate the death toll as reported by villagers.
But, as of Sunday, residents involved in the land dispute continued to assert that at least two people had been killed on the spot in last week’s shooting, and six seriously injured, despite denials from local officials.
Local analyst Hang Vitou told RFA Monday that authorities should conduct a proper investigation of the incident to provide justice for the residents, instead of blaming the media for false reporting.
“I think this is a mistake by the state prosecutor, who failed to properly manage the armed forces,” he said.
“It is particularly egregious that they deployed soldiers, whose job is to defend the country against foreign aggression, to open fire and crackdown against their own citizens. This is not the right approach, because it will damage their reputation and cast doubt on the independence of the armed forces.”
Also on Monday, farmers from 37 communities in four different provinces gathered in Phnom Penh today to submit petitions to the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Land Management, and the National Assembly, requesting that the three institutions speed up resolution of their protracted land disputes.
More than 300 farmers joined Monday’s protest, representing nearly 7,000 families involved in disputes over a total of some 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of land from communities in Tboung Khmum, Kandal, Svay Rieng, and Preah Sihanouk provinces.
The farmers raised banners and marched together to submit their 37 petitions—one for each community—to the three government bodies, saying the disputes had left them impoverished after they lost their farms, homes and employment, and urging officials to visit their communities to investigate their claims.
“We are here to insist and beg your excellences as relevant authorities to help resolve our problems,” one representative said while delivering a petition.
Theng Savoeun, secretary-general of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), which organized Monday’s event, told RFA that the government appeared to be stalling in its resolution of the country’s land disputes.
“They seem not to pay much attention to land dispute problems—in particular to the [farmers’] rights to life,” he said.
“The right to life means that villagers are in need of land to build their residence, to farm and to earn their livings. Yet, authorities appear unwilling to help solve the problems on the basis of legal principles and actual evidence.”
Theng Savoeun noted that many of Monday’s farmers had been involved in disputes for up to a decade.
“We also see that those [companies and individuals] who are involved in land disputes with farmers tend to have connections with senior officials and authorities,” he added.
The farmers returned home on Monday after representatives of the three state institutions accepted their petitions, but warned they would return to protest in the capital if there were no resolutions in their cases.
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
Rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.