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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers slain in fishing feud

Villagers slain in fishing feud

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

800 trawlers.

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,"

said Saran.

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

fishing boats.

Team Vun, 44, also of Cha En, accuses the authorities of collusion in the illegal

practices.

"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

livelihoods.

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