Initial reports of protesters being killed in a clash with security officials that saw at least two people shot on Thursday proved impossible to confirm over the weekend, with access to the protest site blocked and authorities continuing to insist that no one was killed.
In interviews with dozens of villagers, Post reporters were unable to locate eyewitnesses to the alleged deaths, and investigations by the rights group Licadho and the UN’s local human rights office were also impeded by lack of access. The government’s response to the initial reports, meanwhile, has been swift and unequivocal, with officials launching investigations into residents who said they had seen people killed, and even calling the rights group Adhoc on Thursday telling it to retract its statement on the shootings, which had initially been based on villagers’ accounts.
Security personnel on Thursday fired at protesters in Kratie’s Snuol district as a demonstration over a land dispute involving villagers and the Memot Rubber Plantation turned violent. Shortly after the violence, an Adhoc official relayed villagers’ claims that six people had been killed and 40 injured. It later distanced itself from the account, stressing that it had been secondhand, even as villagers continued to say two people had been killed.
The claim of six deaths was repeated by Tin Pheak, who was part of the protest, to Radio Free Asia on Thursday. Kratie Provincial Court Prosecutor Keo Socheat immediately launched an investigation – not into the shooting, but into Pheak’s comments, questioning her on Friday. The following day, Socheat released a video from the interrogation in which Pheak recants her story, and appears to suggest RFA and a person identified as “Eng” forced her to claim there were deaths involved.
“Eng and RFA made me say that six people died and 40 were injured, but in fact, when I inspected it myself, I learned that it is not true,” she said in a video released to local media, also naming RFA senior staffer Chun Chanboth, who fled the country last year after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
She added that four unidentified men on a motorcycle asked her to tell RFA there were six deaths and that “Eng” and the US-based broadcaster incited her to lie. Pheak could not be reached yesterday and on Friday refused to speak to The Post about her claims. On Thursday, however, she told The Post that she had seen at least two people killed.
Socheat, at a press conference on Saturday, said Pheak’s admission that she lied proved that news reports about the killings were untrue. Asked if he had interviewed other villagers or had gone to the protest site, Socheat said he did not want to answer these questions.
“I did not do further investigation. I just searched to find out the truth whether there are people dead as the media said,” he said.
The court also questioned seven of the eight individuals arrested following Thursday’s clash, according to Socheat, though he claimed he did not remember their names and declined to comment on the charges they potentially face.
Post reporters saw seven suspects brought to the court. Socheat also refused to address questions as to why security personnel opened fire at the protesters, or whether the use of such force had been justified.
The Post could independently verify the identities of only five of the accused: Leak Sat, 44; Kim Nai, 23; Poung Phal, 36; Vem Duy, 64; and Buth Vorn, 55, who is currently receiving treatment in hospital and has yet to be questioned.
Court Director Din Sivuthy would only confirm that they had been charged by the prosecutor, and declined to give further details.
“Regarding the procedure, it is now the procedure of the investigating judge, and he is questioning them now,” he said. “The prosecutor had charged them with two or three charges.”
Back in Snuol district, the conflicting accounts of Thursday’s clash were impossible to resolve. Villagers first claimed to have seen at least two deaths, and local hospital staff refused to answer questions about casualties.
Fear seems to have gripped the residents of the district, especially those at the protest, with Kou Ta, a 28-year-old resident, saying that while villagers threw rocks at the authorities after they burned down makeshift huts on the disputed land, the security personnel chose to shoot directly at them in response.
“Soldiers and the district authorities told us to step back and they kept moving forward towards us,” he said. “They start to open fire [into the air] initially, and then later they opened fire at the people.”
The Post asked around 40 villagers if they had seen any dead bodies after Thursday’s protest. Most said that they had heard of the deaths secondhand, and confirmed that the people they saw fall after being shot were actually the two people injured in the shooting.
Injured include a woman who was shot in the hip and transferred to Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital for surgery. Another man was seen with a bullet wound to his left inner thigh, but his whereabouts are unknown.
Licadho on Saturday confirmed a third person had also received a superficial bullet wound to the right thigh and had been tended to by their doctors.
While no one was able to confirm the deaths, authorities’ response did little to dispel questions, with local security officials preventing The Post from entering the part of the plantation where the protest took place and where the huts had been burned. Local officials claimed that no one lived at the protest site and that they had searched the area for any dead bodies, but found none.
On Friday Licadho monitoring coordinator Am Sam Ath said that his investigation team had also not been allowed to visit the protest site.
“We have not yet found any cases of deaths. We have received information about two people injured,” said the rights groups’ monitoring coordinator.
Adhoc land rights coordinator Soeung Sen Karuna said the rights group was still investigating the case and did not want to comment.
Simon Walker, the UN human rights office’s representative, said that their team was unable to access the disputed area.
“We did meet one of the detainees in hospital who appeared to have bruising and swellings which raises concerns of the use of force during demonstrations,” he said in an email.
Former opposition deputy leader Mu Sochua also sent a letter UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, who is on a 10-day visit to the country, condemning the violence on Thursday and asking the rapporteur to do the same.
“We urge you to unequivocally and publicly condemn this attack on the lives, land, and livelihood of the Cambodian people, and give careful consideration to the Cambodian government’s response,” the letter reads.
On Friday villagers said that local authorities were continuing to burn temporary huts set up inside the Memot Rubber Plantation, pointing to smoke plumes on the horizon.
On Friday evening, Post reporters encountered a group of 30 villagers scrambling from the plantation with what few possessions they could salvage.
“Now they are burning our house. They used the excavator to flatten the house and then poured gasoline to burn it,” said Chheng San.
Most of the villagers sobbed as they walked to the outskirts of the plantation holding only their bedding, kitchen utensils and pet dogs in their arms.
At the time, Snuol District Governor Kong Kemny maintained the authorities were simply continuing to implement the law and that there were no formal villages or homes within the plantation.
On Sunday, a villager said that the burnings continued into Saturday but seemed to have stopped the following day. It was unclear whether this was a result of local media reports on Saturday saying that the company had agreed to give 237 families two hectares each.
The same villager, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the offer was only for the 237 ethnic minority families who moved into the area around the same time as the company, and not for others who had moved there later.
Memot Rubber itself released a statement yesterday saying that it had not taken anyone’s land and that in the past it had agreed to cut out 3,000 hectares to be used for villagers. It added that machinery on Thursday was being transported to clear and demarcate the land allocated to villagers.
“On March 8, 2018, the gathering villagers protested, halted and destroyed the vehicles of the company including blocking the national road,” the statement reads.
It does not mention the handing over of land to 237 families nor does it specify why villagers’ huts were torn down and burned.
Representatives for Memot Rubber and its director, Kim Sokleap, could not be reached on Sunday.
Provincial Governor Sar Chamrong did not address the potential resolution and only chose to criticise the Post’s coverage of the clash. District Governor Kong Kemny said he did not know how many people would be part of the resolution, but that villagers needed to come to the authorities if they wanted to find a solution to the dispute.
“But I just want to make sure those who want the land, they need to cooperate with the authorities and they cannot go to the protest and block the road. This country has its law,” he said.