The UN has criticized the excessive force used at an eviction in Poipet, saying the police breached international human rights conventions to which Cambodia is a signatory.
On March 21, more than 100 police tried to evict 218 families from a disputed plot of land in Kbal Spean village, near Poipet town in Banteay Meanchey province.
When the crowd of villagers protested the dismantling of their houses, police opened fire with AK-47s, killing five people immediately and injuring four. One of those injured died in hospital later that day.
The shooting was described as a "tragic event" by Margo Picken, director of the United Nations Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNCOHCHR).
Picken said the authorities made three mistakes in the way they dealt with the situation: resorting to a forced eviction before all peaceful avenues had been exhausted; using lethal force; and undertaking evictions as a form of punishment.
"The eviction ... was carried out with the excessive use of force, in violation of the law and provisions of the International Covenants on Human Rights by which Cambodia is bound," she said.
Local human rights groups and the Sam Rainsy Party also condemned the shootings.
"It seemed the authorities had somehow managed to turn into carnage an execution of order relating to a land dispute between a village chief and over two hundred poor families," stated a Sam Rainsy Party press release issued the same day as the killings.
A committee has been formed to investigate the incident. Its members include representatives from the Ministry of Interior, national police, military police, provincial military police, provincial police, O'Chrou district authority and a deputy provincial governor.
Sok Sareth, the deputy governor of Banteay Meanchey, said 11 military police and two provincial policemen were detained for questioning on March 23 but said they had only shot into the air and down into the ground.
Om Yentieng, an advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the chairman of the government human rights committee, said that authorities have the right to enforce court-ordered evictions but should consider the consequences of their actions.
"I support the committee, which has been set up to find who acted wrongly," Yentieng said.
Kbal Spean village was formed in 1997, when families cleared a four-hectare plot of forest and divided it amongst themselves.
Two years later, village chief, Tin Aun, filed a complaint at the provincial court against the squatters, saying he had a document signed on June 19, 1998, by commune chief Huor Saroeung, that proved he owned the land.
The Banteay Meanchey provincial court ruled in Aun's favor in November 1999, and an Appeals Court hearing upheld that verdict in 2001, said Licadho monitor Am Sam Ath.
According to Keo Sen, governor of O'Chrou district, the families were evicted in June 2001 but returned to the land shortly afterwards. Police tried to remove the group again in 2003, but backed down after a strong reaction from the villagers, said Sen.
In the latest incident, 119 military and provincial police armed with guns accompanied workers hired to tear down the houses of the villagers.
Local court clerk Chan Savath read out an eviction order as police squared off with villagers who had armed themselves with stones, knives and lengths of pipe.
Chuong Prasoeuth, acting chief of cabinet in Banteay Meanchey, told the Post that while Savath was reading the court order, a protester threw a knife into a group of military police, causing one injury and sparking 20 minutes of shooting.
Other accounts vary, with some witnesses telling the media the police opened fire without provocation, or that stones were thrown at police after they began shooting in the air.
Prasoeuth admitted the police had lost control of the situation.
Since the shooting, around 155 families have moved to an area nearby, constructing shelters next to a dam out of salvaged material from their dismantled houses, said Chap Samoeun, an official with UN Habitat who was in Poipet March 24.
"We came here to estimate the people's demands - the important thing now is to find food for them," Samoeun said, adding that he thought the number of homeless people returning to the site would increase.
Prasoeuth said the provincial authority had provided 500kgs of rice and 1.5 million riel to be divided amongst the five families of those killed. O'chrou district and Poipet commune officials also given 200,000 riel to each family.
"We are still making a statistic of the people [remaining] and arranging to provide them with tents, rice and medicine," Prasoeuth said .
The Poipet shooting - along with a jailbreak massacre in Kampong Cham just days later - comes as a Japanese-led mission prepares a resolution on the human rights situation in Cambodia that will be presented to a commission in Geneva in coming weeks.
On April 18, UN Special Representative to the Secretary General Peter Leuprecht will deliver his own report on human rights, which is likely to set the tone for the official resolution to be considered and adopted at the commission's annual meeting.
The UNCOHCHR said Leuprecht's report will mention the violence and excessive force of previous eviction attempts in separate cases that occurred in Poipet last year.
Picken said she hoped the recent killings would be taken into consideration by those drafting and debating the resolution.
"[The resolution] needs to continue international attention at the same level, especially in view of the incidents in the past few months," she said.
"There's nothing that has happened in these last few months to show an improvement [in human rights] - in fact, perhaps to the contrary," said Picken.