Villagers say the company involved has seized their traditional
farmland with impunity; police say the villagers were carrying knives
THE LAND PROBLEM
Land ownership is arguably the nation's most contentious issue - all land records were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. To date under a World Bank programme 1 million land titles have been issued - fewer than 10 percent of the estimated total needed.
POLICE in Ratanakkiri province said Tuesday that they have made one arrest and are seeking other suspects in the shooting of an ethnic minority community representative the day before in a dispute over farmland.
The victim was shot by a policeman named Vy hired by the DM Group Co, the firm at the centre of a dispute over land in Kanlaeng commune, said Pen Bonna, the provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc.
"I met the victim, Soeung Rath, at the hospital. He was slightly injured in the thigh by a bullet fired by a policeman called Vy, who was hired by the DM Group," Pen Bonna said.
Provincial police chief Ra Ray confirmed that a man named Vy had been arrested in connection with the shooting.
"We are searching for the other men who ordered Vy to shoot the villager," Ra Ray said.
The villagers in Kanlaeng commune accuse DM Group of taking over 230 hectares of their traditional forestry and farming land.
The company claims to have bought the land in 2001, but villagers maintain they did not thumbprint any document.
Pen Bonna said the director of DM Group had filed a complaint to the provincial court last year asking that it arrest 10 men for allegedly using violence to reclaim the disputed land. He said three men are in pretrial detention, while the other seven are in hiding.
Pen Bonna said he would ask the authorities this week to investigate this case, as well as the wider issue of companies associated with powerful people threatening the poor when pursuing land cases.
"It is a severe violation of human rights that police injured this villager while he was farming his land," he said.
"During his interview Soeung Rath told me that a dozen villagers from two neighbouring communes entered the disputed area to farm their land as usual, ignoring the company supervisor's warning to stay away," he said.
This led to the shooting, he said.
Though Ra Ray agreed that the villagers had entered the area, twice ignoring the supervisor's warnings, he disputed their claims that they were simply trying to harvest their fields
He said Soeung Rath slapped the supervisor, which led him to request help from the security guards.
Because the villagers were carrying axes and knives, the security staff shot two bullets into the ground to defend themselves, but one ricocheted and hit Soeung Rath, he said.
But Chhouk Savath, a villager in neighbouring Patang commune, said villagers had told him that a security guard for DM Group had shot Soeung Rath in the foot while he was trying to harvest rice on his plot that the company wanted to bulldoze.
"Several days ago, the company took more than 10 hectares of farmland from eight families that it claimed it had bought from other villagers in Ching Chak village," he said, adding that most farmland belonging to villagers from Patang and Kanlaeng communes had now been taken by DM Group.