Kampong Thom Province
TWO men were recovering in hospital Tuesday night after a group of 30 soldiers and military police officers in Kampong Thom province used knives, hatchets and canes to disperse villagers protesting against the takeover of their land by a Vietnamese rubber company, officials and rights workers said.
The Monday morning melee began after some 200 villagers burned four excavator trucks belonging to the company, Tin Bean, on the disputed 8,000-hectare piece of land in Kampong Thom’s Santuk district.
The company was awarded the property in a 2007 economic land concession, though many of the families who first moved there in 2004 have yet to relocate and decry the concession as unfair.
“We burned those excavator trucks down because we wanted to block them from digging up the land,” said Prom Saroth, one of the villagers.
Shortly after, soldiers and military police officers stationed at the site approached the villagers and told them to leave, firing AK-47 assault rifles
into the air. When the villagers did not disperse, the police and soldiers charged them, beating them with canes and in some cases cutting them with knives and hatchets, rights workers said.
Now we do not dare go out even to buy food because we are afraid....
Nine men were hurt – two hospitalised – though most of the injuries were minor cuts and bruises.
Prom Saroth, one of the seven men who sustained minor injuries, said one of the hospitalised men received serious bruises on his arms and back, and that the other, Mok Maly, suffered powder burns on his his face from a gunshot.
Kampong Thom Governor Chhun Chhorn said Tuesday that the villagers had provoked the attack by burning the excavator trucks, adding that they had previously burned a military police car and speaker set.
He said the heavy police presence on the site was necessary. “The reason that we allow the soldiers and military police in the area is because we want to protect the company’s property,” he said.
On Tuesday the charred wrecks remained at the site. One truck driver who did not want to be named said he was slightly hurt in the clash.
Chan Soveth, a researcher for the rights group Adhoc who visited the site Tuesday, said the officers were responsible for keeping the peace and deserved the blame for Monday’s violence. “The authorities are to blame because nine innocent villagers got injured,” he said.
Chheng Sophors, a monitor for the rights group Licadho, said the villagers had been living under siege since soldiers and police were first stationed there in 2008.
“The situation is difficult because they have the soldiers about 7 kilometres from the village, and they don’t allow people to go in and out,” he said.
A man who was among those who received minor injuries on Monday said villagers had been living in fear that they would be shot if they left the village.
“Now we do not dare go out even to buy food because we are afraid the soldiers will shoot at us,” said the villager, who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
“And just recently, they blocked off the road nearby and said that if any villagers dared to pass it, they would shoot or arrest us. They said they had orders from their superiors to do this.”
The number of families who stand to be evicted from the site remains a point of contention between rights workers and the government. Chheng Sophors said 1,362 families were living there. but Governor Chhun Chhorn said the families numbered only 300, more than 200 of which had already accepted land provided by the government and relocated.
“I don’t know why they keep saying there are more than 1,000 families,” he said. “In fact, they should not get any compensation because they live on a government land concession, but we had pity on them and tried to give them new 20-metre-by-30-metre plots of land. Also, we asked the company chairman to hire them,” he said.
Several villagers said the plots offered by the government were significantly smaller than the plots on which they currently live.
Officials from Tin Bean rubber company could not be reached Tuesday.