FEARING continued violence in a land dispute, families living on isolated farms in Battambang province’s Samlot district began sleeping at the village homes of friends and relatives on Sunday, though some said they had been forced to do so by local authorities, whom they have accused of colluding with soldiers and a Korean company in an effort to take over their land.
Sin Mey, a village representative, said villagers began fearing for their security after he and another community leader, 60-year-old Pich Sophon, were shot in separate incidents last month.
Pich Sophon, who was killed by four unknown gunmen on April 26, had been instrumental in advocating on behalf of 141 families involved in three land disputes covering 705 hectares, which date back to 2007 and pit villagers against military officials from Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Region 5 and an unidentified Korean company.
He was also witness to the attack on Sim Mey, and is thought to have been killed by the same men.
“Now villagers dare not go outside or stay at the farm at night,” Sim Mey said Monday. At night “they move and sleep as a group of five to seven families per house because they are afraid someone will come to shoot them”, he said.
Police began patrols last Thursday to look for four suspects sought in connection with the shootings, both of which occurred in Chamlan Romeang Lea village. But Sim Mey said the 24-hour police presence was of little comfort because villagers believed the authorities had sided with the soldiers and company involved in the dispute.
“We do not trust those authorities because they have threatened villagers and said that if the company grabs our land we must keep quiet,” he said, adding that the authorities had threatened them with arrest.
Hok Khoeurt, Samlot district deputy police chief, said police had asked villagers to consolidate their sleeping arrangements at night because the village was too spread out for his squad to protect all of it.
Villagers say they have been living on the disputed land since 2005, when local officials offered them 5 hectares of farmland each along with 30-by-70-metre plots in exchange for US$93.