choam ksan district, Preah Vihear province – Driving along the 3-km stretch of road in the Occheuteal protected forest where hundreds of families were violently evicted by police, military police and soldiers on Nov 15, it is hard not to be taken aback by the sheer scope of destruction.
The remnants of hundreds of wooden houses that were burned to the ground, sit like abandoned campfires and line the road leading to Preah Vihear temple, begging the question: How could such a thing happen?
According to the government, the case is simple: Over 300 families were illegally encroaching on state land and after several failed attempts by authorities to convince them to move, action was taken.
“For a week we tried to convince them to remove out of the area, but they refused,” Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
The villagers not only refused, he said, but when over 200 armed police, military police and soldiers came to press the matter on Nov 15, the community shot at them with guns, leaving authorities no choice but to fire back.
As a result, seven villagers were shot by authorities, two of them—Toeung Chheng, 25, and Oeun Hen, 31—fatally.
“The authorities are not to blame,” Khieu Kanharith said, declining to say whether it was police, military police or RCAF soldiers that fired on the villagers.
“The authorities acted as a group,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith added that the villagers had to be evicted because they were in a Unesco designated “buffer zone” and their presence was hurting Cambodia’s bid to get the Preah Vihear temple inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
Teruo Jinnai, Unesco country representative for Cambodia, called the eviction incident “regrettable” in an e-mail Sunday, adding that Unesco does not support the “use of violence to support any problem.”
Jinnai said that removing the villagers from the site is not a condition for having the temple inscribed on the World Heritage Site List, noting that villagers still live in the environs of Angkor in Siem Reap province.
“Communities and people have been there before and after the inscription of Angkor as WH. None had been removed before and during the inscription process,” he wrote.
In addition to the shooting deaths and injuries, 18 of the villagers have been charged by the Preah Vihear Provincial Court with illegally encroaching on state land and 16 have been placed in Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, according to Prey Sar prison Director Mong Kim Heng. He added that the remaining two charged villagers have been hospitalized. Additionally, Preah Vihear Deputy Governor Meas Savoeun was charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for his involvement.
Rights groups such as Licadho, Adhoc and Amnesty International don’t agree with the government’s appraisal of what occurred on Nov 15 and have issued strong statements condemning the violence used by authorities.
However, most agree that the villagers were illegally encroaching on state property and that one man, 27-year-old Mann Chanthorn, husband to slain villager Toeung Chheng, started it all.
A Kompong Cham province native and SRP commune election candidate, Mann Chanthorn, along with his wife and four children, was the first person to settle in the area, said his sister, 24-year-old Mann Srei Neang.
She claimed during an interview in the provincial capital of Tbeng Meanchey that her brother had bought the land legally from a forestry official whose name she could not remember.
“My brother has documents showing that we own the land,” she said, adding that none of the villagers who migrated to the area knew that it was in a protected landscape.
“If it’s protected land why did they sell it to us?” she asked. “People came and saw that there was empty land.”
According to Mann Srei Neang, provincial authorities first came to the site on Nov 9 to inform the community that they had to leave the area.
Then, on Nov 14, provincial police, military police, and soldiers showed up to reiterate their eviction order, Mann Srei Neang said, arresting two villagers to show they were serious. The villagers responded by blocking the road to Preah Vihear temple off with several large felled trees, she said.
According to the government, two Japanese tourists were held hostage that day for two hours by the villagers—a claim the Japanese Embassy has repeatedly denied. Mann Srei Neang said that two foreigners—a man and a woman—were in a taxi that was forced to stop because of the roadblock, but she claimed that the pair was never held hostage.
“They wanted to go to the temple, but we told them to turn around,” she said, adding that the tourists tried to argue their way past the irate villagers before turning around after 20 minutes.
Police have claimed that the villagers fired on police during the eviction. Mann Srei Neang said that the villagers had no guns.
“We only had axes,” she said. “The police wanted us to put down our axes—that’s why they shot the villagers.”
Eight kilometers south of the eviction site in Kantuot commune’s Sre Em village, village chief Sar Mab said during an interview last week that the community not only had guns, but bombs as well.
“I saw people attack police with guns, but no police were injured,” he said.
Sar Mab added that as the “ringleader,” Mann Chanthorn was responsible for inciting the villagers into violently attacking police.
“Mann Chanthorn wasn’t afraid of anybody,” he said. “Police only wanted to protect themselves.”
Sar Mab shook his head and said that he did not understand why the villagers insisted on fighting with police because government representatives had offered to give the villagers land in Sre Em village.
“The government wanted to give them another plot of land, but they did not want to take it.”
Seng Try, a taxi-driver who makes the arduous journey from Preah Vihear municipality to Preah Vihear temple daily, said that Mann Chanthorn was “stronger than the Khmer Rouge.”
“He even trained the little children to fight with axes to protect their land,” he claimed as he drove past the remains of the hundreds of houses that were burned to the ground by police.
Sab Bunsoeun, SRP deputy chief of Kantuot commune, said that Mann Chanthorn failed in his attempt to run for a councilor seat in April’s commune elections and, contrary to what Mann Chanthorn’s sister said, the village leader had lived in the eviction site since 2002.
“Mann Chanthorn was our SRP member, but he did not listen to me as a commune councilor,” Sab Bunsoeun said. “He wanted to create a secession area.”
Right or wrong, Mann Chanthorn is now a widower, and according to prison director Mong Kim Heng, is among the men awaiting trial in Prey Sar.