Clashes between villagers protesting a land dispute and security officers erupted in gunfire yesterday in Kratie province, with a rights official initially reporting six killed, and villagers at the scene confirming at least two dead – while authorities provided a starkly different account, saying that nobody had been killed.
A video from the skirmish, posted to social media, shows villagers carrying machetes and sticks arguing with authorities. The video then cuts to a shot from afar of the villagers as gunshots ring out in the distance. At least 30 shots can be heard, and the demonstrators can be seen scrambling away from the area. A separate short video shows a man shot in the inner thigh being tended to by villagers.
Following the clash, a coordinator with the rights group Adhoc, relying on reports from the scene, said that six of the protesters had been killed by gunfire.
However, Kratie Governor Sar Chamrong yesterday evening insisted that there had been no deaths reported, and that only two people were injured – a man and woman – and that another villager had been arrested, which had sparked the conflict.
“Authorities arrested one person and then the villagers got angry. We negotiated with them but the villagers were with the homemade guns, and the villagers were very nasty. I am now making a report to [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng,” he said.
The protest began when Military Police and soldiers burned down huts belonging to the villagers, who then proceeded to block the road. The huts were on land at the centre of a long-running dispute between the Memot Rubber Plantation Company and residents who moved into the area around the same time that the land was granted to the company.
A doctor who answered the phone at the district referral hospital, meanwhile, declined to comment, before then saying there were no deaths. When pressed, he declined to comment further, saying it was “very difficult” to talk about the matter.
Keang Hong, the director of the provincial hospital, declined to comment when asked about casualties.
Several villagers who were at the scene, however, told The Post they saw several people killed with their own eyes.
One villager, who asked for anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said protesters did have machetes used for clearing land and farming, but said there were no homemade guns involved. He added that he saw a man shot through his chest.
“Tonight I am scared to stay at my house because we heard that the authorities will come to burn down [the huts],” he said.
Tin Pheak, a villager present at the clash, said she saw a woman and a man shot dead by the authorities, and had helped move the bodies away from the road. She added that she herself was hit in the face by a police official’s gun.
“I left the body to call people to help, and then when we came back the police already put the body in a car,” she said.
The account from National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith, however, was again different. He maintained that there were no deaths and that two people received minor injuries, with 10 villagers arrested after the clash.
An initial police report of the incident said that around 300 villagers stopped a provincial team from clearing the huts and blocked the road, he said. According to the report, 150 security personnel were present as well. Villagers were armed with knives and axes, he said, without mentioning homemade guns. Authorities fired in the air to prevent any “violence”, he added.
“After some shooting, the people dispersed, but we do not know how the weapons ricocheted to hit the two people, one man and woman,” he said, adding that the National Police were regretful of the injuries.
Pong Vin, commune chief for Pi Thnou, said he tried to negotiate with villagers to clear the road, but said protesters would only leave if authorities resolved their land dispute.
Reached later, Adhoc coordinator Be Vanny, who initially reported the deaths, said that he was simply passing on information he had received, adding that he was now “wanted” by police.
Soueng Sen Karuna, land rights coordinator at Adhoc, said that he had been contacted by a Kratie Provincial Court official demanding the rights group retract its previous statement, saying the initial casualty report was wrong. He said they were sticking to the information provided by villagers.
“We do not make a correction because we just got the information from villagers. But if the authorities want to hide information, then how do we deal with that?” he said.
Court spokesman Tiv Vuth Then denied the court had contacted the rights group.
A number listed for Kim Sokleap, a director for Memot Rubber Plantation, was answered by a man who would not give his name and directed all questions to the authorities.
Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said yesterday’s incident was reminiscent of past instances when armed soldiers had been deployed, resulting in “extreme violence and fatalities”.
“People and communities affected by land grabbing need remedies not more violence,” she said in a message.
The incident is reminiscent of the 2012 killing of 14-year-old girl Heng Chantha, in Kratie’s Pro Ma village. She was killed as hundreds of armed police and Military Police officials violently evicted and shot at villagers involved in a long-running land dispute with Russian rubber firm Casotim.
The incident was later justified by the authorities as a necessary attempt to quell a “secessionist” movement allegedly led by Mam Sonando, a popular radio station owner and political figure.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said shooting at villagers disputing the seizure of land by a large company was typical of the Hun Sen government’s “might makes right” strategy towards land conflict.
“At a minimum, there needs to be an independent and impartial investigation, and local military commanders held accountable for their excessive use of force that resulted in injuries and possibly deaths. But the likelihood of that happening is probably zero,” he said.
See the videos posted to Facebook here:
Additional Reporting Mech Dara, Soth Koemsoeun and Ananth Baliga