POLICE guarding a rubber plantation in Kampong Thom province’s Santuk district opened fire on a small group of villagers who tried to cultivate their old farms inside the concession area on Sunday, villagers said.
Three villagers – part of a group of about 40 – were shot by police in the afternoon as they attempted to enter concession land in the district’s Kraya commune, from which they were forcibly evicted in December.
Luon Bunthy, 39, who brought the three victims to Santuk district hospital, said that the shootings took place at around 1pm, when villagers approached a police post guarding the 8,100-hectare rubber concession owned by the Vietnam-based Tin Bien Company.
“Two disabled veterans were shot in the legs, and one farmer was shot in the belly while they tried to go back to farmland in their old village,” he said. “Police said that they received new orders to shoot at us.”
Although villagers have been granted replacement land in Thmor Samleang commune, also in Santuk district, they say government promises of 1-hectare plots of arable land remain unfulfilled. Luon Bunthy said the group had intended to ask police if they could temporarily cultivate their former land, adding that they lacked any alternative.
“The reason we want to cultivate our old village land temporarily is because we are afraid that next season we won’t have any food to eat,” he said.
“When the authorities provide a new farm, we will go back to work back [there], but they did not listen to us, they only started shooting.”
The three victims have since been moved to Kampong Cham provincial hospital amid fears the Santuk district authorities will come and arrest them, he said.
Prum Roth, a former Kraya commune villager, said the police guarding the Tin Bien concession had “looked down on [the villagers] like dogs”.
“Why did they need to open fire on us? Even though we did not listen to them and still tried to enter our old village, they should have found another
way to settle our problem rather then shooting at us. We are human beings, not animals.”
Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that social land concessions are “intended for former veterans who are truly landless, not only those who served in the armed forces, but also people affected by natural disasters or family resettlement”.
Villagers, including disabled military veterans, began settling in Kraya commune in 2004 and received official recognition for their community in 2005. In 2007, however, their land was granted as an economic land concession to Tin Bien, culminating in their forced eviction from the site on December 15.
Local officials said Monday that police had opened fire in self-defence. “Our police shot them to protect their individual safety, because they had knives and were fighting with the police,” said Santuk district governor Pich Sophea.
“We told villagers at the new relocation site not to go to their old village, and that if they go our police will shoot them.”
He also accused most of the villagers of not being former Kraya residents, saying the remainder were seeking to cash in on the government’s promised compensation.
Uch Sam On, Kampong Thom’s deputy governor, said the villagers did not listen to the police, who fired warning shots into the ground that accidentally ricocheted towards the villagers. He added: “We really want to provide farmland to them… but we are looking for them and we will let them know next week.”
Chan Soveth, senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said he was “very sorry” about the shootings, saying the villagers’ return to their old land was unsurprising since they had received no word from the government about the replacement plots. “I really don’t understand the government… Why don’t they care about the people, and only protect the land for businessmen?” he said.
Santuk district police chief Ek Mat Muoly declined to comment Monday.