Members of the ethnic Jarai minority in northeastern Ratanakkiri province were so enraged when they discovered the bulldozed remains of an ancestral burial ground on Thursday that they detained the drivers of the machinery and demanded thousands of dollars in compensation.
Villagers claim that the bulldozers belong to Day Dong Yoeung, one of two Vietnamese companies in the area with an economic land concession to develop rubber plantations. Jarai villagers in O’Yadav district’s Paknhai commune, near the Vietnamese border, have clashed with the company before over claims that forest clearing was destroying their traditional way of living.
Sev Hlin, chief of the commune’s Lorm village, said yesterday that four bulldozers were used to destroy more than a hectare of the graveyard.
“The graveyard was almost destroyed. And in addition, more than two hectares of the villagers’ crops were also bulldozed. We are deeply concerned that the spirits of our ancesters will curse and badger us,” he said, adding that he reported the incident to the district governor.
According to witnesses, the bulldozers ground up bones, plates, rice pots and bracelets. The villagers were horrified when they encountered the alleged destruction, commandeering one of the machines and detaining two drivers, who were later let go after questioning by commune police.
“Others escaped into forest. The drivers were Vietnamese who could not understand the Khmer language,” he said, adding that the Jarais are demanding $5,000 in compensation from the company for ceremonies to placate angry ancestors.
As many as 1,500 graves were bulldozed and some forcefully “exhumed”, said Chhay Thi, provincial co-ordinator for the rights group Adhoc, after visiting the scene yesterday.
Thi called it a serious violation of ethnic tradition, because the Jarai consider the graveyard sacred. Moreover, he said, ethnic groups and local authorities told the company where the graveyard was last year, and representatives visited the site.
Poy Chroch, Paknhai commune police chief, said that they did not detain the two drivers for long as they were employees and had no way of knowing the plot was a graveyard, adding that the bulldozed area was relatively small.
“It is little, not more than one hectare, like they said.”
Dork Sar, O’Yadav district governor, said that he had forwarded a report to povincial authorities, but Deputy Provincial Governor Nab Bun Heng said they hadn’t received it yet.
Day Dong Yoeung could not be reached for comment, but commune police chief Chroch said the company would resolve the problem within the week, though he did not elaborate.