POLICE and military police used guns and electric batons to drive roughly 100 villagers in Kampong Cham province from 41 hectares of disputed rice fields yesterday, injuring three in the process, villagers and rights workers said.
Chear Thearith, deputy police chief in Stung Trang district, where the altercation occurred, said the police and military police had been hired by the Long Sreng Company, a firm that has been trying to develop the site into a rubber plantation since April.
“The police were hired by the company,” Chear Thearith said. He had not arrived at the site in time to witness the altercation himself, he said.
“When I reached there, everything was finished already, so I don’t know much about this case,” Chear Thearith said.
We were working on our farmland, but [police and military police] did not allow us to do this.
No Almath, a 29-year-old villager who witnessed the incident, said two elderly women and a 24-year-old man suffered bruises and other minor injuries at the hands of police, who he said had tried to convince about 100 villagers to stop cultivating the disputed land and leave the area.
“We were working on our farmland, but they did not allow us to do this, and they said the company had the right from the government to develop on our rice fields,” No Almath said.
The officers had fired into the air twice in an attempt to drive villagers away before using electric batons to forcibly remove them, he said.
A group of about 56 families claims to have farmed the land since at least 1970. But Ath Kimleang, the chief of Prek Kak commune, where the land is located, said it fell within a swathe of 3,000 hectares that were given to the Long Sreng Company in 2007 to be turned into a rubber plantation.
No Almath said company representatives and local officials asked the families to sell their land to the company at a price of US$500 per hectare in April. “But we don’t need to sell. We need to keep farming the land to support our living,” he said.
Ath Kimleang said he had reported the altercation to district and provincial authorities, but that he had no power to intervene.
“I have no right to say that I will cut off some part of the land to keep rice fields for the villagers. It is up to the government,” he said.
Stung Trang district Governor Kao Sok An could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Neang Sovath, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said the company had no right to remove the villagers from the land because they had been there for decades. “It is illegal. Even thought they got a grant from the government, they have to talk to villagers,” he said. “It is the rainy season, so villagers need to plant rice.”
Company officials could not be reached yesterday.