baset district, Kompong Speu Province – With their children by their sides and baskets of food in their arms, about 15 women walked along a muddy footpath to a wooded hill about 1 km north of Trapeang Kak village at noon on Monday.
When they arrived, their husbands and brothers, who have fled to the hills to avoid arrest following the kidnapping of their commune chief last week, materialized one by one to pick up the parcels of rice, dried fish and stewed morning glory the women had brought for them.
The women and children looked on as the men—dressed in beanie hats and ripped clothes—squatted on the banks of the rice paddies and discussed living in the forest.
“Hiding in the jungle is OK,” fugitive Non Mao said. “It’s not so risky, but it’s not so good with many people,” he said, adding that the forest is infested with mosquitoes.
Villagers say more than 100 men accused of taking part in the kidnapping are hiding in the Phnom Srang range.
Police say they want to arrest some of the fugitives but don’t have the resources to do so.
“We hardly have enough to stop a cow thief,” Trapeang Kak Commune police Chief Sieng Khunly said Monday.
Hundreds of villagers held commune Chief Meas Samon hostage from the afternoon of May 4 until the next morning, demanding that the provincial court release a local man, Khuon Chhoeun, who was arrested in a dispute over a 0.8-hectare plot of rice paddy just outside the village, police said.
The land, which villagers regard as communal farm land, was handed over to Meas Samon by the Kompong Speu Court.
Following the court decision, Khuon Chhoeun was detained for illegally occupying the land.
Hours after his arrest, several hundred villagers turned up at Meas Samon’s house, some of them carrying axes and machetes, the commune chief’s wife Chhaing Saman said Monday.
Meas Samon was not at home, but the villagers soon located him and escorted him to a nearby house, where they chained his legs up to a metal window grill, police said.
While the villagers held him, Meas Samon said Monday, “they threatened to take me to the mountains…and kill me.”
District police did not intervene that night because so many villagers were involved, Sieng Khunly said.
But they arrived with reinforcements the next day, and 146 police and military police officials surrounded the village.
When the villagers refused to release Meas Samon, police stormed the building and freed the commune chief. His captives fled to the jungle.
In the melee, police managed to arrest only one man, who was accused of injuring the finger of a senior district police official, police said Monday. Other villagers who were not involved in the kidnapping said on Monday they sympathized with the fugitives.
“It’s lucky that it’s not Khmer Rouge time, because people would respond to such police brutality by joining the Khmer Rouge,” said Prak Savly, a male villager who is still in the village.
Villagers say they have owned the 0.8 hectares of land since 1979 and want to keep using it to grow rice and share the money, despite Meas Samon’s claims that he obtained a land title for the land in 1993.
Those remaining in the village are continuing their campaign to take back the property.
Before dawn on Monday, about 100 of them set off for Kompong Speu provincial town in two trucks to try and protest to the provincial governor, villagers and police said.
But 8 km outside the village, police stopped them and ordered them to go home.
Baset District Deputy Governor Nop Kimsreng blames outsiders for instigating the kidnapping and subsequent flight to the hills.
“I would like to invite those people [who fled] to a meeting and tell them not to run away,” he said.
Nop Kimsreng added that he was surprised such a calamity had been able to escalate over such a small amount of land.
“If they live without this land, they won’t starve,” he said.
Social unrest over land disputes, however, was predicted by UN Human Rights envoy Peter Leuprecht during his visit to Cambodia late last year.
“It’s very dangerous in any society to have more and more people with nothing to lose,” Leuprecht said in November. “I think there’s a lot of potential for unrest.”
At the foot of the hill on Monday, So Man, a father of four, said he was sick of living in a hammock in the forest and keen to assert his right to the land and return to the village.
“I just want to go to the province and tell the authorities, ‘Don’t mistreat us anymore,’” he said.