sen monorom town, Mondolkiri province – Tension continued Monday following the weekend’s violent confrontation between ethnic minority villagers and workers for the Khaou Chuly company who are clearing 2,705 hectares of land for a rubber plantation in Pech Chreada district, which the villagers say is their land.
Three of the firm’s excavators were torched and another smashed by hundreds of villagers who protested on the morning of Dec 20 against the company’s clearing of contested land.
No one was hurt during the protest, though armed police reportedly raised their guns and pointed them at the protestors in order for them to retreat.
“[On Dec 21] I held negotiations with all seven village chiefs and with the commune councilor, but unfortunately I could not meet with the villagers,” said Yim Lux, Mondolkiri deputy provincial governor.
“I am really deeply sorry over the wrongdoings that have been committed by the villagers who used violence to destroy the property of the company,” he said.
Workers for the Khaou Chuly company, which was granted a land concession by the government in late 2007 to establish the rubber plantation, said on Monday the villagers showed up caring tools and plastic bags and water bottles filled with gasoline and diesel.
“There were 12 of us and many of them. I tell you honestly that those villagers were not unarmed, they carried axes, hoes, machetes and small knives. We are afraid they will come back,” said Oum Chreang, 59, one of the workers.
“It is not even the company they are hurting. We are families who are trying to earn a living,” Oum Chreang said, adding that he and others are merely contract workers who have been hired to clear the land and are not Khaou Chuly staff.
Villagers, who refused to give their names because they fear retribution for speaking out, said they are now staying close to their homes because they are afraid of being arrested by the numerous local, provincial and military police who have been deployed to the area since Dec 20.
Those interviewed on Monday who had taken part in the protest said that they had chopped at excavators with axes, but the axes were already at the site and were being used to clear the forest.
Nhim Mak, Pech Chreada village chief, appealed for calm on Monday.
“Now provincial authorities and provincial police are resolving this matter but I am very sorry for the incident because whatever the villagers have done was quite violent,” he said.
“They should calm down,” he said.
According to Nhim Mak, several police officers were injured during the confrontation with the villager after they arrived at the scene on Dec 20.
“They were bitten by the villagers,” he said, adding that the officers did not fight back for fear of being accused of brutality.
In dispute is a large swath of forest several kilometers from the famous Busra commune waterfall that locals says has been farmed by 1,030 local families have grown rice, bananas and cassava for the past three decades.
The government in 2007 awarded that land in a 99-year lease to Khaou Chuly Group, and the firm started clearing portions of the forest in April. A large rubber tree nursery is already in operation and thousands of saplings already dot the site.
The villagers say they are objecting to further forest clearance until they receive proper compensation for the loss of their land.
The Dec 20 protest involved around 400 villagers marching to the disputed property where a dozen workers were using four excavators to clear trees and brush.
Yim Lux said he hopes to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the villagers and the company, though those responsible for the violence on Dec 20 would be prosecuted.
“I will try my best to negotiate and compromise with the company but the people who caused violence destroyed property will face the law system for their wrongdoings,” he said.