Police and military forces shot dead a 14-year-old girl yesterday when hundreds of heavily armed officers stormed a village in Kratie province and sprayed automatic gunfire during a forced eviction.
Two other people were injured and five were arrested during the clash with residents of Prama village, in Chhlong district’s Kampong Damrei commune, some of whom were armed with crossbows or axes.
The killing of the teenager is just the latest, but perhaps most shocking, incident in a bloody wave of violence that military forces have committed against activists and protesters this year.
Witnesses said that about 8:30 yesterday morning, hundreds of military police, supported by a helicopter, had stormed into the village, roun-ded people into separate groups and opened fire on them with automatic weapons.
Teang Kem Srin, 28, said the forces had sprayed heavy automatic gunfire at them twice.
On the second occasion, a bullet hit his 14-year-old sister, Heng Chantha, in the stomach.
“My sister was just doing something in my house, but she got hit in her stomach and she died along the way when I took her to get medical treatment at Snuol [district] hospital,” Teang Kem Srin said.
His sister “knew nothing”, he said, and called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene.
The forces were ordered to evict the residents by a joint committee of Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, National Police chief Neth Savoeun and Kratie provincial governor Sar Cham Rong, which accused them of forming an autonomous state through a group called “Democratic Association”.
But the residents of Prama village have been in a long-running land dispute with the company Casotim, which has an active 15,000-hectare agricultural economic land concession granted in 2007 near the area and a 124,284-hectare logging ELC that has been cancelled.
A military police officer who took part in the operation and spoke on condition of anonymity said they had been ordered to storm the village by the joint committee on behalf of Casotim and another company that he did not name.
He said his forces acted in self-defence against the armed villagers, who attacked a police officer last month.
“If we did not fire on them, they would have killed us, because we had experience one time already,” he said, adding that they arrested five people, who he did not identify, but confirmed they failed to catch the group’s leader, Bun Ratha.
On April 6, Bun Ratha was arrested for allegedly inciting villagers to destroy a Casotim office, but police released him four days later after hundreds of villagers repeatedly blocked national road 78.
In a statement released after the incident, the Ministry of Interior said it was looking to investigate and arrest Democratic Association leader Bun Ratha, 32, and masterminds Bun Chorn, 55, Sok Tong, 61, Ma Chang, 47, and Khat Saroeun, 42.
The five men are accused of six offences including fraudulently distributing land, kidnapping two soldiers, illegally blocking roads, nullifying villages, threatening village chiefs and preventing officials from registering citizens.
Sok Phany, 34, who fled the village with her two children before the shooting, said the forces had evicted everybody and set up a perimeter around it so no one could get in.
“I have been living in that area for about seven years already, now they come to take my house and give the land to the company. They were very cruel to shoot on villagers like we are animals,” she said.
She denied any plot to create an autonomous state and said now she was homeless.
Kratie governor Sar Cham Rong was upbeat about the success of the operation, which he said had foiled the “Democratic Association” – the so-called organisation the joint committee has alleged is behind a succession movement.
“A lot of villagers are happy with our measures, and now we can control that area and other villagers had left from that area already,” he said.
But he was sorry a teenage girl had been killed by a stray bullet that he said accidentally ricocheted into her.
Rights groups, the opposition and observers expressed disbelief that the military police had yet again fired on the public this year, just over three weeks after they gunned down environmental activist Chut Wutty.
Surya Subedi, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, who just wrapped up a trip to Cambodia where he investigated economic land concessions and evictions, said he was shocked.
“I am very concerned by this killing, which comes soon after the killing of Mr Chut Wutty. This is a very worrying trend indeed,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker and human rights campaigner Mu Sochua said Prime Minister Hun Sen had completely lost control of the military and needed to face up, in person, to his people to explain.
“The prime minister has lost control of his power. He is not the powerful person that he thinks he is; he has lost his credibility, people don’t listen to him anymore. No more lives should be wasted on a government that has lost its credibility,” she said.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with the rights group Licahdo, said the situation had reached a new low. “It is turning out to be the most violent year ever when it comes to the use of lethal force against activism,” he said.
In January, security guards dressed in military fatigues opened fire on a crowd of protesters in Kratie’s Snuol district, injuring three people, one seriously.
In February, three female protesters were shot, one through the chest, at a protest outside a shoe factory in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet town, allegedly by the town governor who was charged but never arrested.
Ek Tha, a spokesman at the Council of Ministers Press and Quick Reaction Unit, called the killing “heartbreaking” and said the culture of violence had to stop.
“It is time for Cambodian armed officials to think and think and think again and again before raising guns to shoot at [their] own blood, own people,” he said, adding that villagers also needed to not protest violently.
Ly Hout, a representative of Casotim; Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior; and Choung Seang Hak, Kratie provincial police chief, all declined to comment.