Bullets intended to cow villagers into abandoning a long-running Kratie province land dispute seemed only to strengthen their resolve yesterday.
In the wake of four of their own being shot by security guards working for agricultural development firm TTY, more than 400 villagers in Kratie province massed to block national road 76A for 24 hours, dispersing only after receiving word that Prime Minister Hun Sen had promised the return of their disputed land.
On Wednesday morning, four villagers from Snuol district were shot with AK-47s after hundreds attempted to keep hired security guards from clearing their cassava fields.
One man, 22-year-old Mong Touch, who was in critical condition after being shot in both legs, was sent to Vietnam for treatment.
The protesters reopened the road to traffic at about 10:30am yesterday after provincial authorities passed along word that the premier had agreed to return land granted to the TTY company in 2008 as part of an economic land concession, affecting nearly 500 families in the Pi Thnou commune.
The reopening of national road 76A allowed about 300 travellers, whose commutes were blocked due to the protest, to resume passage between Kratie and Mondulkiri.
Protester and uncle of the critically injured Mong Touch said he had yet to receive news from Vietnam concerning his nephew’s condition.
He added that the promise from the premier concerning the return of their land was the sole factor in the villagers’ decision to end their protest.
“We decided to open the road because of the prime minister’s promise [to return our land],” he said.
No Sos, a member of the protest, said if the government had not obliged their request for the return of their land, they would have continued to block the road indefinitely.
“We could have blocked the road for six months and it wouldn’t have been a problem. We already have cassava we could sell for rice in order to continue the protest, so it is lucky for the authorities that they agreed with the villagers’ request,” he said.
Village representative from the Pi Thnou commune Ven Sreang said the villagers need a government sub-decree, as well as letters from the Ministry of Interior and TTY ensuring the return of their land.
“The provincial governor said that he will obtain the letters for us,” he said.
Kratie deputy governor Sar Cham Rong said he would make sure that TTY refrained from taking any further steps on the land in question until negotiations are concluded, the security guards responsible for the shootings are arrested and the injured villagers receive compensation.
“What I said is not my word, it is from Prime Minister Hun Sen and deputy governor Sar Kheng. Without [the prime minister’s] order I dare not make this decision,” the deputy governor said.
Provincial police chief Chhoung Seang said his office was conducting an investigation of Wednesday’s dispute and searching for the security guards responsible for shooting the villagers.
He added that the police will not pursue cases against any of the protesters responsible for blocking national road 76A.
Senior investigator for rights group Licadho Am Sam Ath said he welcomed the idea of the authorities finding a peaceful resolution for the villagers.
“If the authorities respect their promises, they can put an end to the dispute, but the villagers will protest again if they break their promise,” the investigator said.
Administrative director for the TTY company Thong Long declined to comment yesterday and said he was only familiar with the shooting and protest after reading media reports.