Fishermen in Sre Ambel district are appealing for government intervention after a
long simmering feud with Stung Hao fishing trawlers resulted in the murder of two
men in March.
Two Saray village fisherman were killed, one injured and three arrested after the
occupants of a fishing trawler opened fire on their boat on March 24.
According to Sre Ambel district Police Chief, Nhem Dara the March 24 clash was a
simple case of attempted robbery gone wrong.
"The fishermen confessed that they were attempting to rob the trawler"
said Nhem Dara.
Dara said that the incident occurred after six Saray villagers boarded the Stung
Hao trawler in an attempt to steal shrimp, gasoline and a torch. When discovered
they were fired upon by the trawler crew, killing two of the villagers.
"It is not only the people that we arrested who committed a crime but the trawler
also committed the crime. Both sides are criminal," Dara said.
None of the trawler crew has been arrested for the shootings, though Dara says that
investigation into their illegal use of firearms continues.
But both the Saray village fishing boat's owner and one of the two Saray fishermen
subsequently arrested on charges of theft in connection with the incident, 23-year-
old Klout Yok, dispute the police story.
Yok told the Post that the police version of events was false.
"We did not board the trawler," he said. "We just went near the boat
and they opened fire on us."
Yok said that he and his friend were led to believe they were being taken by police
to be questioned and released. They were astonished at finding themselves under arrest
and heading for Koh Kong jail.
"The police forced us to thumbprint confessions that they had written,"
asserted Yok, who also claims that he was only released after paying the Koh Kong
court a bribe.
Yok said that with their bribe and travel expenses the whole ordeal cost each of
the subsistence fishermen baht 24,000 ($530).
Choun Ngeth, Saray villager and owner of the boat that was fired upon, described
the incident as "a very great injustice".
"We have no weapons, so how can we rob them? They have weapons and they killed
us," he said.
"We want to file a complaint with the government but we are too afraid for our
security," she said.
Police Chief Dara concedes that the area has been rife with conflict between local
fishermen and trawlers from other areas in recent years and accused the trawlers
from other districts of committing illegal fishing in his area.
"There are two parties to this conflict. It's a conflict between the poor [traditional
fishermen] and the rich with their modern fishing equipment" said Dara. But
he maintains that the claim of "fishing conflict" is a mere cover for the
villager's real motive of robbery.
The problems in Saray are echoed in other fishing villages around Sre Ambel where
fish stocks and species are being depleted by unsustainable illegal fishing practices.
In the village of Cha En fishermen have been making a living from their area of Kompong
Som Bay for more than 100 years, but say they have seen their livelihoods almost
destroyed over the past decade.
The problem, they say, is due to an influx of fishing trawlers phased out by Thai
law and bought up by Cambodian operators based around Stung Hao, a base for an estimated
While Cambodian fishing law prohibits trawlers operating in water depth of less than
20 meters, the law is not enforced and every evening the horizon around Cha En is
dotted with the Stung Hao boats.
According to villagers the trawlers first made their appearance in the bay in 1993
and began to take an immediate toll on fish stocks. Unlike traditional surface nets
the trawlers used drag nets that scrape the ocean floor, not only removing fish stocks,
but also destroying the sea grass habitat of many species.
Villager Poth Saran, 48, has been fishing the area most of his life and says that
the impact of the trawlers on the area's sea life has been devastating.
"Fish stocks in this area have declined by about 90% and about 10 species of
fish have disappeared since 1993. "
The problem has intensified in recent years as illegal logging has been phased out
and many former logging operators have gone into commercial fishing.
In response to depleted fish stocks, the villagers have increased the length of their
nets, but over the years their catches have shrunk to around 2kg a day, just 10%
of what they were a decade ago. The loss of income has propelled the villagers into
unsustainable levels of debt as they try to replace old equipment and pay for medicine
and extra food. It has also forced them to remove parts of the area's mangrove swamps
to grow rice, further depleting breeding areas for shrimp.
"We want the government to help us by imposing a strong order and stopping the
trawlers from practicing in our place, destroying our fish and marine life,"
Kun Soroeun, General Director of the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries
(MoAFF), said that a village by village solution would be put in place but legislation
would need to be enacted in order to make it effective.
"We have written the law on fisheries already but it needs to go to the Parliament...
and that could take a few years," he said.
But the villagers have little confidence in the authorities and fear the trawlers.
Attempts by villagers to effect vigilante action against the trawlers have led only
to threats of escalating violence.
When Cha En villagers in 1999 captured two trawlers and destroyed their nets, they
soon received a visit from the boat's owner - a man they describe as a "high
ranking military officer" - and were warned to keep their distance from the
Team Vun, 44, also of Cha En, accuses the authorities of collusion in the illegal
"Government officials ignore the law and let them do it, so both are committing
crimes," he said.
The village is in the process of establishing a fisheries community project which
they hope will gain government support, restore the marine ecology and rebuild their