Two hundred ethnic Phnong villagers in Mondulkiri’s Koh Nhek district launched a protest on Friday after the deputy district governor and an armed escort seized timber from their homes, before allegedly attempting to extort a bribe for its return.
“People are collecting thumbprints to protest,” said Kreung Tola, who represents the Mondulkiri Provincial Community Network. “[Nut Boeun,] the deputy district governor led the forces to halt the timber with extortion. They searched homes without a warrant.”
A 33-year-old villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, yesterday said that Boeun led an armed three-man team of military police and soldiers to search homes for timber on Thursday. After discovering the illicit wood, the officials tried to force at least four timber owners to pay $500.
“They could only afford to pay $100. The deputy district governor said that he would not accept $100. So the villagers protested,” they said, adding that a villager named Tong Chan was allowed to keep his wood after paying $250.
A contingent of villagers went to meet with the deputy district governor that night.
“At about 7pm, a soldier fired a shot [in the air],” said the villager.
A police official in Koh Nhek district yesterday confirmed both that a warning shot had been fired and that villager Chan had given the deputy district governor $250 in order to keep his timber.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they are not authorised to speak to the media, added that the district governor, Meul Soeung, visited the village on Saturday to solve the issue. But when district authorities returned to the village the next day, they were met by a crowd of 200 protesters.
Yesterday, Soeung said the conflict remained unresolved. “Let expert officials take legal action on the case,” he said before hanging up the telephone.
Boeun and Svay Sam Eang, the provincial governor, could not be reached for comment.
Pen Bonna, senior officer in charge of land and natural resources at rights group Adhoc, said a lack of transparency allowed local officials to use government pushes for tougher law enforcement as an excuse to line their own pockets.
“They will only arrest the people who cannot afford the payment … People have the right to sue those officials,” Bonna said.