Police are investigating after a mob of villagers in Preah Vihear province let fly with fence posts in a clash with environmental officials following a logging bust, leaving the chief of Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary with a serious head injury.
According to accounts, some 300 to 400 people from Po village in Tbeng Meanchey district’s Po commune were present during the Friday-night skirmish, which left 42-year-old sanctuary Director Yan Bunsoeung with a wound near his right ear. However, the events leading up to the violence are disputed, with a villager alleging the officials struck the first blow.
According to the officials’ version, the violence arose in response to a logging bust in a nearby forest, where about half a dozen rangers intercepted eight tractors hauling wood in the late afternoon.
The chief of the Provincial Environment Department, Ear Sokha, said the officials stopped the loggers’ vehicles but, as they were outnumbered, allowed them to continue to the village after they ditched the timber.
Sokha said the officials then followed the men, who he alleged called in backup.
“When they got close to the village, around 200 metres away, they gathered about 300 people and used violence,” Sokha said. “They took out the sticks that are used for fences and threw them towards the officials, hitting [Bunsoeung] on the head.”
Sokha, who said scenes of the clash were captured in mobile phone videos, which he declined to provide, said a few other officials received minor injuries and claimed the sanctuary director was lucky to survive.
“If it had hit him just a finger’s width higher, he would have died,” he said. “We know the suspects and those involved.”
However, witness and Po village resident Pa Sophal described a different version of events in an interview by phone yesterday.
Sophal said there were seven, not eight, trucks driven by loggers, which he said became stuck in mud near the village.
He said the drivers had “agreed” with officials to ditch the timber and return home, though tension heightened later in the evening when, at around 8pm, Bunsoeung and the team returned and allegedly assaulted some of the men after trying to elicit bribes.
“The environmental chief came in a car, drunk, with a karaoke girl,” Sophal said, claiming the officer threatened to seize the tractors unless a bribe was paid.
“They agreed to pay between $75 and $100, but the officials did not agree because it was too little. At the same time, one truck driver tried to get his truck, but he was beaten by the officials, who hit, kicked and handcuffed him and put him in the mud.”
A photo from the village showed a local man with a bloodied face with handcuffs on one wrist.
Sophal claimed “two or three” other men were also assaulted by the officials, claiming the alleged violence inflicted by the officials and a growing frustration with logging-related extortion set villagers off.
“When the villager handcuffed in the mud cried out, people just came in. Some used sticks to throw at them, but we didn’t know who was hit because there were 300 to 400 people,” he said.
Deputy Tbeng Meanchey District Police Chief Som Hai said officers had questioned two of the tractor drivers, who claimed not to be involved, adding he expected the environmental officials to file a complaint over the incident.
“We are investigating the case,” he said.