THE dangers of poor farmers opposing powerful adversaries intent on taking their
land was highlighted last month in Prey Veng when military police opened fire on
a crowd of villagers involved in a land dispute.
Community activist Sar Sean outlines his villageís case.
The March 5 incident was the culmination of a four-year feud between inhabitants
of Id village and a private land development company, the Cambodian Farmers Association
for Agricultural Development (CAMFAD).
The involvement of the MPs was the final straw for many of the villagers who then
traveled to Phnom Penh to try and put their case before the National Assembly.
The dispute started in the autumn of 1995 when villagers discovered a tractor tilling
a sixty-hectare plot of land that had been farmed by 69 local families since 1979.
"We hadn't used the land since 1993 because the land was too dry," says
self-described "community activist" Sar Sean, whose family has traditionally
used the plot to grow corn and beans. "But it had always been our land."
Sean and his neighbors were later told by a man they came to know as Soh Sabor that
the clearing and development of their land - including the digging of much-needed
irrigation ditches - was the work of CAMFAD, which they presumed was an NGO.
"Sabor told us that [CAMFAD] was there to assist with agricultural development
- we were lied to," he said.
Sean has a copy of a contract signed in 1995 between CAMFAD and the villagers in
which the company agreed "to borrow land. . . for two years starting from 1995."
CAMFAD promised "to return the land to the local authorities after [the 1997]
Sean said in addition to the land lease CAMFAD agreed to perform the land development
work in exchange for two year's of rice harvests from the land and a one-time payment
from the villagers of half a chi of gold (worth approximately US$18) for each hectare
The problems began at the conclusion of the contract in 1997 when villagers approached
Sabor with their payment for the work done. Villagers claim Sabor inexplicably demanded
ten times the amount of gold originally agreed upon then claimed the land for himself.
The villagers ignored Sabor's claims and the dispute began in earnest.
At his home in Prey Veng town, Sabor said he was the victim of greedy farmers intent
on robbing his company of previously empty, untended land.
"The first time I went there it was only bush, nothing was growing there,"
Brandishing numerous photocopies of court documents and arrest warrants, Sabor made
it clear that CAMFAD's claim of legal title to the land has the law on its side.
But the villagers said the court decisions proved how corrupt the Cambodian judiciary
were rather than the justice of the case.
"The government supports [Sabor's] side because he has money and we don't,"
Sabor denied that the company bribed the court.
The ongoing dispute has taken a high physical and financial toll of the people of
Eng Ouk lies at home recovering from an MP gunshot wound
The most serious incident occurring at 7:00am on March 5.
Villagers said that Soh Sabor arrived in Id with two armed MPs, whom he admitted
giving money for food and expenses.
The MPs had an arrest warrant for nine villagers who Sabor accused of "theft
and destruction of CAMFAD property" such as rice seed and agricultural tools.
The appearance of Sabor and the military policemen, just hours after two villagers
had been arrested by another MP unit, aroused considerable public anger.
"The people had heard that the MPs had used their rifle-butts to beat (the arrested
villagers) into unconsciousness," said Yim Buny, chief of Police Administration
for Russei Srok Commune, an eyewitness to subsequent events.
According to Buny, within minutes a crowd of approximately 100 villagers, many bearing
sticks, axes and knives, converged on the trio. The two MPs escaped on foot, but
the crowd tied and bound Sabor and brought him to Buny at the village police post.
"It's true that they had no right to arrest [Sabor], but they didn't beat him,"
Buny says. "They just wanted to 'trade' him for the two villagers who'd been
Such "swarming" tactics had successfully repelled an attempt by Sabor and
MPs to arrest two villagers on Nov. 13, 1998.
Buny's hopes to mediate a peaceful conclusion to the situation were dashed an hour
later when a group of 15 heavily-armed MPs arrived on the scene.
"They were wearing full battle-dress and carried grenades, AK-47s, machine guns
and B-41 rocket launchers," says Buny.
Before Buny had a chance to initiate a dialogue between the Gendarmarie and the villagers,
the MPs opened fire on the crowd.
"I told [the villagers] to be quiet and I'd negotiate with the military police,"
Buny says, "but the military police began immediately firing at the legs of
Two men, Khan Thoeun and Eng Ouk, were wounded in the burst of fire.
"After Thoeun was wounded the MPs beat him until he fell to the ground,"
"They knocked out his front teeth."
"I told [the MPs] that this was my [jurisdiction] and that they couldn't behave
like that, but I was threatened and told to be quiet."
Prey Veng Provincial judge Kim Eng, shrugged off Buny's charges of MP brutality,
even before he had heard the case.
"The military police acted correctly in accordance with an arrest warrant issued
by Prey Veng Provincial Court" Eng said, describing the shootings of Thoeun
and Ouk as "accidental".
Eng, who will oversee proceedings against four of seven Id villagers arrested on
March 5, also dismissed allegations the court system was corrupt.
"Of course [the villagers] would say that," Eng said with a laugh.
"Thoeun and Ouk approached the military police carrying knives.
"The military police just fired into the ground in front of [the two victims],
not at them."
In total, 53 people from Id were arrested and taken to the Prey Veng MP compound.
"[The MPs] said that if we tried to escape we'd be shot," says Veng Cheng,
On March 9, Cheng and 45 other Id villagers were released without charge. The remaining
seven face charges of "illegal arrest" and "inciting criminal acts".
More arrests are pending as four of the nine individuals named in the arrest warrant
of March 5 remain at large. Similarly, Eng says that shooting victims Thoeun and
Aok are under "continuing investigation" and may face criminal charges.
Buny said that in addition to the March 5 shooting of village residents Khan Thoeun
and Eng Ouk, a third villager, Chun Vit, was seriously beaten by MPs on the disputed
site the next day.
Another villager claims that since March 5, ten sacks of rice (half his harvest)
that he'd left at the disputed site were stolen by MPs.
In the meantime, the residents of Id fear an imminent reapplication of MP violence
and intimidation to enforce the claims of CAMFAD on what they maintain is village
Buny is plainly disillusioned by what he describes as the "illegal actions"
of the Prey Veng Gendarmarie. He said the MPs: "don't respect the law, they
just do what they want."
And if the MPs should return to the village and perpetrate similar abuses in future?
"I'll protect the people," he said.