krakor district, Pursat province – A grenade exploded Saturday among a group of farmers protesting against land and timber giant Pheapimex Co Ltd, injuring eight and sharpening a tense dispute that many say could test Prime Minister Hun Sen’s promises for land reform.
Three protesters suffered serious shrapnel wounds and five others had minor injuries from the attack as they slept in hammocks in Ansa Chambok commune, where Pheapimex is preparing to clear more than 300,000 hectares of land and make way for a bitterly contested eucalyptus plantation. Six of the injured were taken to Phnom Penh for treatment.
The injured were part of an ongoing hundreds-strong demonstration that began Friday, days after villagers in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces learned that Pheapimex is restarting operations halted after protests in 2001. The protesters say they rely on the forest for their livelihood. The grenade exploded around 12:40 am about 5 meters from a cluster of sleeping victims, witnesses reported. They said they saw a man fleeing the explosion in the direction of a dozen police assigned to provide security for the protesters.
“I think the company worked with police to throw this grenade and threaten us. They want us to stop the protest,” said Kouch Veng, a 41-year-old farmer.
Police at the scene immediately ruled out intimidation as a possible motive for the attack, instead postulating that the attack was meant to frame Pheapimex and tarnish the company’s reputation. They named no suspects but suggested that the protesters themselves might have thrown the grenade.
“I think this is some sort of game,” said Vanna Bin, chief of district police, on Saturday. Police at the scene said they did not question a Pheapimex crew camped about 10 km from the small clearing where the villagers have staged their protest.
Despite the attack, protesters on Saturday remained at the site, repeating their demands that Pheapimex stop its work and that Governor Ung Samy help in their struggle. Loudspeakers played a recording of Hun Sen’s Oct 18 speech, in which the premier promised to reduce concessions in excess of 10,000 hectares—the legal limit—and fight land-grabbing by the rich and powerful.
Ung Samy, who has yet to meet with the villagers, on Saturday sent a deputy provincial police chief to address the crowd as his representative, pledging a thorough investigation of the grenade attack.
“I am not happy with this incident,” said Prach Rim, the deputy chief, offering a $1,000 reward for information about the perpetrators and $2,000 for a confession. He said Ung Samy had asked Pheapimex to suspend its work for a week as he tries to reach a compromise with villagers.
On Sunday, Ung Samy said Pheapimex’s small crew of Chinese workers removed a bulldozer and backhoe from the work site. Protesters said the equipment remained but the crew had left the site.
On Sunday police turned away protesters on National Route 5 who tried to reach Pursat town in order to protest in front of provincial government buildings. A meeting between villagers and provincial officials is scheduled for today.
The protests over Pheapimex and its massive holdings frame a countrywide problem highlighted in a UN report that criticizes the concession system for corruption, secrecy and the exploitation of resources used by the poor.
The UN report, released Sunday by UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht, widely condemns the concession system for depriving local people of their livelihood and benefiting a wealthy few, saying that the system is “eating the kingdom.”
Pheapimex, headed by Cheung Sopheap, is considered the largest private landholder in the country and is known to have close ties to the prime minister. Straddling Pursat and Kompong Chhnang, the company’s concession totals more than 315,000 hectares.
Land issues will figure prominently in a meeting of donors next month, and observers are now watching how the government might handle the Pheapimex concession and the villagers’ protests.
Saturday’s attack, and police’s quick assertion that Pheapimex was somehow victimized in the attack, discouraged most.
“We’re hoping that the government can start to act in a manner that corresponds with their speeches,” said Russel Peterson, director of NGO Forum, on Sunday.