Hundreds of people fled in fear yesterday from the village in Kratie province where a bloody security forces crackdown the previous morning left a 14-year-old girl dead.
Joint police and military police forces locked down the area where a land dispute has raged this year, and claimed they had arrested seven villagers accused of plotting a succession with the group Democratic Association.
On Wednesday, joint forces estimated to have numbered close to 1,000 moved in, firing on those who stood in their way, to evict about 1,000 families from Pro Ma village in Chhlong district’s Damrei commune.
Fresh details emerged yesterday of what happened during the crackdown, which authorities have said was to capture the five masterminds of Democratic Association, including leader Bun Ratha, who has fled into hiding.
Pale-faced 44-year-old villager Pov Ban, who along with 10 others had taken refuge at an office of the rights group Adhoc and was still visibly in shock, said before the forces moved in, residents were given no opportunity to leave.
“They warned us that if we dared to walk into this area [where we live], they would open fire. They sprayed gunfire at us to threaten us while we entered, meanwhile, a girl was injured in her stomach at her house,” he said, referencing young Heng Chantha, who died after being shot.
Pov Ban said he was unaware of any plan by Bun Ratha to create an autonomous state, saying he had merely attempted to help villagers in their dispute with the Russian company Casotim – which has a 15,000-hectare economic land concession about 15 kilometres from the village.
In a statement released yesterday, rights group Licadho said based on collated eyewitness accounts, forces had surrounded the village the night before the eviction, blocked off all access points and moved in the next morning, firing as they did.
The statement said 20 villagers broke away from a group of hundreds as forces moved in and confronted a column of 15 soldiers who opened fire on them when they refused to stop moving.
“Admidst [sic] the gunfire, several villagers, including 14-year-old Heng Chantha, took cover outside Chantha’s home. They took shelter on an elevated rattan bed, which was partially obscured by a pile of wood,” the statement reads.
Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek said a witness claimed a soldier approached the pile of wood and shot Heng Chantha when she got up to see what was happening. Heng Chantha later died in hospital.
Speaking from hiding, Bun Ratha said he had not measured any land to distribute to villagers but merely helped villagers submit documents to authorities in their dispute with Casotim.
“It seems ironic that I was alleged to have formed an autonomous area – how easily it was established. I did not have any money to buy weapons to make a movement,” he said.
Bun Ratha said he had already been imprisoned once before, and authorities had tried to catch him “many times” between 2004 and 2012.
Anonymous Chhlong district military officials said they had so far caught seven male suspects since the shooting: Hen Thoeun, 31; Mao Veasna, 32; Khan Sovan, 54; Poum Vanak, 53; Sanh Khen, 27; Touch Ream, 48; and Khourn Sroeun, whose age is unknown.
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay suggested there were parallels between the Kratie dispute and the 1967 Samlaut uprising, a rebellion in Battambang preceding the Cambodian civil war that was brutally suppressed by government forces.
“That was the beginning of the revolution of the Khmer Rouge; it was about land as well, similar circumstances, land grabbing issues,” he said.
Though villagers, after undergoing frisking and rigorous checks, were allowed to attend a funeral yesterday for Heng Chantha at Pro Ma village, rights groups, the press and even United Nations personnel were kept strictly away from the area.
When asked why people had been prevented from visiting the site, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said it was standard procedure to have a police line, which would likely be maintained for a short time only.
“I think that [it is] the police line, after the crime scene happened. We are working. ... Even in New York, they have police lines,” he said.
The shooting is the latest in a wave of bloody violence this year that has been used against activists and protesters fighting industrial disputes, land concessions or illegal logging.
As the shooting made headlines in the global media yesterday – largely because it comes just weeks after the slaying of prominent environmental activist Chut Wutty – international organisations condemned the violence.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had on several occasions in the past urged Cambodian authorities to prevent law enforcement officials from using excessive force.
“Yet another lethal event in such a short period of time is a really worrying and sad development,” the UNOHCHR said in an email, adding their officials had been barred from investigating the scene but would meet the provincial governor today.
Global Witness, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights were among the other groups to release statements condemning the killing.