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20 sought in K Thom brawl over property

Kampong Thom Province

Photo by: Rann Reuy
Villagers from Santuk district in Kampong Thom sit on Monday at the scene of a violent clash with military police in an ongoing land dispute. Twenty are wanted for destroying private property (below).

KAMPONG Thom provincial court has prepared 20 arrest warrants for villagers involved in a clash with soldiers and military police officers that led to nine injuries and two hospitalisations on Monday, officials said.

Provincial Governor Chhun Chhorn said he and two other officials had filed a complaint to hold the villagers accountable for burning four vehicles owned by a Vietnamese rubber company that was awarded an 8,000-hectare economic land concession in Santuk district in 2007. Hundreds of families have condemned the move as unfair, saying they have lived on the disputed property since 2004.

“Now these people are under investigation according to the court warrant because it’s a penal case,” Chhun Chhorn said, adding that the villagers had also burned a Military Police car and destroyed 11 motorbikes.

The altercation began Monday morning when some 200 villagers torched the vehicles, prompting Military Police and soldiers who have been stationed at the site since 2008 to turn on them with knives, hatchets and canes, rights workers said.

Pich Sophea, the governor of Santuk district, said local officials had identified the “leaders” of the group that participated in the burnings. “There are about 20 leaders who will be arrested according to the arrest warrant, and now they are preparing to escape from the village,” he said.

“It makes me sad that they encouraged the people to become violent, because we tried to implement the government economic land concession in a peaceful way,” he added.

Residents, however, paint a different picture of life at the site, saying they have been living in near-constant fear of arbitrary beatings and harassment at the hands of the armed officers stationed near their village.

Chan Soveth, a researcher for the human rights group Adhoc, on Wednesday appealed to the authorities to kick the officers off the site.

“Now the villagers are worried about their security, and many are afraid to even go on the road leading out of their village,” he said.

But Ek Mat Moly, the police chief for Santuk district, said the authorities were planning to boost the police presence in response to Monday’s violence.

“Now we are going to spread our police around that village and also on the road because we want to protect this area. And we also want to try to arrest the leaders who burned the company and Military Police property,” he said.

Numbers game
Officials and rights group workers are at odds over how many villagers stand to be evicted from the site. Chheng Sophors, a monitor for the rights group Licadho, said Tuesday that 1,362 families were living there, whereas Chhun Chhorn said there were only 300 families, 200 of which, he said, had already accepted land provided by the government and relocated.

Chan Soveth said Wednesday that the two men who sustained serious injuries remained in hospital. Provincial court officials could not be reached for comment.



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