PHNOM PENH: Security forces in Cambodia have said they acted out of self-defence in clashes with civilians who were involved in a land dispute with a rubber plantation company in Cambodia’s Kratie province.
The confrontation occurred on Thursday (Mar 8) between more than 100 security officers and about 200 villagers, according to local authorities.
Initial reports from independent local media, based on eye-witness accounts, suggested several protesters had been killed and dozens injured.
However, authorities have denied those reports, saying only two villagers had been injured, along with seven officials.
The protesters had tried to prevent authorities from removing 10 huts supposedly built on land belonging to Memot Rubber Plantation in Snuol district.
Snuol District Governor Kong Kimny said officers were forced to use self-defence as they were attacked by civilians using makeshift weapons including sling shots, Molotov cocktails, home-made guns and rocks.
“We have a right to self-defence. If we don’t have they will shoot through our bellies,” he said, confirming that eight people had been arrested.
“People have their rights and authority also have (their) rights.”
Video of the incident uploaded to social media appeared to show sustained gunfire from security forces and villagers fleeing the scene. Other protesters could be seen holding machetes.
Kimny said that the protest started at about 12.50pm and finished at approximately 2.15pm, adding that the incident happened because people had blocked National Road 76.
“As the authority, we absolutely will not touch them first,” Kimny said.
Banished national opposition party the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) called for an independent investigation into the incident, calling it a “slaughter” and “carnage”.
“We condemn the brutality of Cambodian authorities and demand an immediate and independent investigation of this attack," said Mu Sochua, deputy president of the CNRP. "Villagers who were detained should be released immediately and protection should be provided to witnesses in order to ensure a fair examination of the situation.
“This attack further erodes the deteriorating rule of law in Cambodia and prohibits Cambodians from living peacefully on their land as they have for years before authorities unjustly rip it out from under them, uprooting and displacing them. Authorities must return the land to the villagers and end this culture of impunity.”
LAND DISPUTE RUNNING SINCE 2008
The land dispute, involving hundreds of families, has been running since 2008 when the Memot company was granted 9,000 hectares of land as an economic land concession in Pi Tnou commune.
Last year, 400 families were given eviction orders on land given to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana, next to the rubber plantation.
The situation returned to normal on Friday, said Kratie provincial governor Sar Chamrong, adding that the company had taken control of its land.
“There (was) one villager protester who threw sticks (at) the officers, and we arrested him for questioning. So some other villagers gathered to block the road and demanded for his release,” he said.
“They started to shoot their home-made gun(s) first, and then the officers shot (into) the air to break them away from blocking the street.”
Chamrong said that people could not just go and encroach on land that did not belong to them, and that there were procedures to follow to resolve the dispute without violence.
Soeung Sen Karuna, a senior investigator for non-governmental organisation ADHOC, whose representative initially reported six deaths in the incident, said he had no further update about the incident and was travelling to the scene to investigate.
“I don’t know ... about this and we are looking to meet villagers. People already escaped from the scene so it is difficult,” he said.
“We would like to ask the authorities to see whether it is appropriate to use weapons and whether it reached the point of needing to use self-defence.”
Am Sam Ath, monitoring for rights group Licadho, also said he was awaiting information from one of the group’s officers who was in Kratie.
“We are in the civil society so we don’t favour any side. We don’t want to have any injuries to both officers or people,” he said. “We should find solutions to avoid violence and (to avoid) cracking down by using weapons that cause injuries.”
The issue of land rights in Cambodia is a controversial one, and there have been numerous cases of protests leading to violence involving authorities, with many activists arrested and jailed for protesting the confiscation of land.