Environmental rangers in Preah Vihear’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary are preparing to file a complaint against 15 people for inciting an armed mob of villagers on Saturday to “liberate” three rice tractors impounded at an environmental office.
According to a Preah Vihear province environmental report, rangers on Thursday confiscated three tractors, two chainsaws and 2.7 cubic metres of timber near the O’Anhchanh creek at Pnheak Roleuk village in Chey Sen district’s Thmea commune.
The evidence was being held at Sre Veal village environmental office pending legal procedures. But two days later, approximately 70 villagers arrived to protest the seizure and “stole” the tractors.
Prey Lang ranger Plang Sarith was present when authorities tried to prevent the villagers from storming the office. He said the rangers were outnumbered, and senior authorities did not permit the use of weapons. The mob was therefore able to take the tractors back to their village.
“Due to an order from higher authorities prohibiting us from using weapons, we could not do anything besides advising the villagers to wait for a legal solution rather than committing an offence. But the villagers did not listen,” he said.
Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary head Meas Nhem told The Post on Sunday that on the day of the incident his officers were authorised by Preah Vihear’s provincial court prosecutor to use force to prevent the villagers “stealing” their tractors.
But he said the villagers – carrying knives, axes and sticks – heavily outnumbered the authorities so Nhem prohibited the use of weapons or force.
“If we had used weapons, the villagers would not have been able to take their tractors. But the situation would have escalated, causing harm to villagers – a small group of whom we believed were seeking such an outcome, in order to attach blame to the environmental rangers."
“Currently, we are preparing to file a complaint at the provincial court in order to punish the leaders and those involved according to protected natural area law,” Nhem said.
He said four of the villagers suspected of inciting the mob are from Chey Sen district. Three – Un Vien, Lin Phal and Yem Sieng An – live in Pnheak Roleuk village, while another, Em Ra, resides in Sleng commune. Another suspect, Van Ny, is from Stung Treng province’s Thala Barivat district. Nhem said there are a further 10 suspects.
The group of villagers accused of “stealing evidence” could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
According to a Sre Veal environmental ranger’s video clip The Post received on Sunday, the villagers claim they were only using the rice tractors to transport timber for construction at their homes.
A Prey Lang Community Network representative in Preah Vihear, Phok Hong, said the villagers were making excuses. The truth is, she said, they were logging for illegal timber traders.
“If they were delivering timber without proper documentation, it would not have been a major crime. They could get an apology by obtaining a letter from authorities confirming they were building their houses. But the villagers’ actions were illegal and should not be forgiven,” she said.