A group of men attacked military police with rocket launchers and semi-automatic weapons on a disputed piece of land in Banteay Meanchey province this week, killing one, police and military officials there said.
The attack took place on a lucrative parcel of land claimed by the military police chief of Battambang province, Por Vannak. Por Vannak won a court decision last fall and at least 70 families were evicted from their homes along Route 5, the road that leads to Poipet and over a recently opened international border crossing with Thailand.
The attackers—at least three men—opened fire Jan 1 with B-40 rocket launchers and AK-47s in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district, local authorities said. Three military policemen and one bulldozer driver guarding the land were injured in the attack, said Bun Seng, commander for Military Region 5. One of the military policemen died in a Thai hospital Tuesday, said a police source who asked not to be identified.
The bulldozer, believed to be used to raze houses on the property, was also destroyed, police said.
“They shot two rockets, but one missed the point while another hit the right point,” Bun Seng said. “We are investigating the incident.”
Reached by phone, Por Vannak said the attack was related to his land dispute. He claimed the attackers are linked to the military. And Nhem Sarith, a Sisophon-based investigator for the local human rights group Adhoc, confirmed that the attackers appeared to be members of the military.
“The armed attackers were protected by powerful military men who instigated the attack,” Por Vannak said. “The attack is against the court’s ruling.”
In recent months, land values have skyrocketed in Poipet, with the opening of an international border crossing and casinos.
Sunday’s incident is a particularly stark example of the lawlessness and violence prevalent in an area commonly referred to as Cambodia’s “wild west.” But it is not unique.
A recent report by the Cambodia Center for Conflict Resolution described Poipet as in a state of “near anarchy, which is fast falling out of control of any authority.” It warned lawlessness could “jeopardize the fragile stability that has emerged.”
“Poipet is practically lawless, and this one small border area alone is almost a microcosm of all the issues that challenge the government across the country: Land disputes, prostitution AIDS/HIV, trafficking of women and children, illegal immigration, demobilization, organized crime and so forth. To allow such a situation to continue uncontrolled will have a negative impact on neighboring areas and could undermine stability in the region,” according to the report.
One Banteay Meanchey human rights worker said weapons are readily available in the area, and demobilized soldiers are plentiful. Land disputes seem to be getting worse, and violence has long been part of the equation.
In interviews last November, local families recently evicted from the disputed land and local NGO workers claimed that military police assaulted an elderly lady and threatened to rape a teen-age girl during the evictions. Military officials denied the allegations.
At the time, several families produced documents from local authorities they said showed they owned the land, and claimed they were still planning to appeal the decision when military police showed up with a bulldozer and guns and forced them to leave.
In December, an additional 39 families living on adjacent land were forced off by soldiers believed loyal to Por Vannak, a local human rights worker said. A pregnant woman with five children was beaten and arrested by military police during those evictions, the rights worker said. The woman was released Dec 30. Por Vannak denied involvement in the evictions.
“Land disputes are erupting every day and most are quite violent,” the rights worker said. “Mixed force armed police come in large numbers and anyone who resists or even talks is hit.”
In recent weeks, an 8-year-old boy was wounded in the stomach by a stray bullet fired into the air to disperse evicted villagers, the rights worker added. And down the road from Por Vannak’s property, monks living at Pelelai Temple were confronted by armed men and told their land and their wat now belong to an ice factory, she said.
The incident in Poipet is the second this week stemming from a land dispute. Two villagers were beheaded in Kompong Chhnang province this week by a man allegedly ordered off a piece of land by district authorities.