Dozens of men have fled following April 20’s violent confrontation between villagers and police over disputed land in Sihanoukville, rights groups said Sunday.
Thirteen male villagers were arrested during the violence, which broke out as dozens of villagers resisted an attempt by 150 armed police and soldiers to remove them from the disputed land. Fearing further arrests, more than 30 male villagers have fled, rights workers said.
Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said that 363 people have been left homeless by the forced eviction—312 of them women and children who are now living in tents about 150 meters from the former site of their homes. She added that 80 homes were burned to the ground during Friday’s melee, and the remainder of the community’s 106 houses simply torn down.
Chan Soveth, monitoring chief for Adhoc, said that his organization had received complaints from 92 women claiming that police and military police had taken their motorbikes, TVs and other belongings as they destroyed homes while forcibly clearing the Mittapheap district land.
Chan Soveth said that it was impossible for Adhoc to confirm the number of injured because “all the men and the injured are in hiding.”
Rights groups said Sunday that they are still uncertain who started the violent confrontation.
Police prevented rights workers and journalists from witnessing the eviction, Chan Soveth said.
Mann Tour, police chief of Mittapheap district, called Friday’s events a “small war” between his police and “drunken secessionists” incited by elements working for the Sam Rainsy Party.
He acknowledged that 72 homes had burned down, but insisted that the conflagrations were the work of “opportunists” trying to inflame the villagers.
He added that rights groups were mischaracterizing the situation and are perpetually biased against the police force.
“Human rights groups are biased. Rights groups don’t think about the rights of the police,” he said.
Mann Tour said that his officers were acting on a court warrant to search the community for illegal weapons as well as an order from the municipal authority to clear the area because villagers were illegally inhabiting the land and creating a “secession area.”
Sihanoukville Municipal Court Director Svay Sisaruth confirmed Sunday that her court had issued a warrant for police to search the area.
Municipal Governor Say Hak and his deputy Sboang Sarath could not be reached for comment.
Mu Sochua, secretary-general of the SRP, said that the government was ultimately responsible for the violence at the eviction site.
“It’s not the first time; it’s not going to be the last time,” she added.