Several housing and human rights groups Friday condemned two violent confrontations over disputed land that resulted in arrests, bloodshed and in one case gunfire in Phnom Penh Feb 21 and Feb 22, according to a statement from the groups.
“This is proof positive that forced evictions are taking place in Cambodia, and the abuses of the last two days should serve as a wake-up call to the government officials and spokespersons who continue to deny their existence,” said David Pred, Cambodia country director of Bridges Across Borders.
Pred made his comments in a joint news release with the Housing Rights Task Force, NGO Forum on Cambodia, Licadho, the Community Legal Education Center, and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.
According to the groups, on Feb 22 in Russei Keo district more than 100 police officers were involved and some fired AK-47s in the air and used tear gas to disperse residents as they removed 23 homes from 1 hectare of disputed land in Khmuonh commune’s Banla Sa’ith village.
At least four people were injured, including one with a head wound, and eight villagers were arrested, the rights groups said in their statement.
Pheng Vannak, Phnom Penh municipal deputy chief for the minor crimes office, said that villagers provoked the confrontation with rock throwing and used other weapons, but he denied that police used tear gas.
“It is not true,” Pheng Vannak said. “The loser normally has something bad to say about the winner and our officials,” he added.
Pheng Vannak confirmed the arrests of eight people, and admitted that he deleted images of the eviction from a digital camera belonging to a member of rights group Adhoc. He claimed he was ordered to delete the images by Phnom Penh Municipal Court Deputy Prosecutor Hing Bunchea.
“That guy only photographed the negative images of injured villagers. But he did not take positive photos of our forces who were attacked by those cruel villagers who used axes, gasoline bottles, long knives to attack our joint forces,” he said. Hing Bunchea could not be reached Friday for comment.
Ouch Leng, a monitor for Adhoc, said residents threw only rocks after the police used tear gas.
In their statement, the rights and housing groups said the evicted families say they had lived on the land since 1994 and had family books and other documents supporting their claims.
In 2005 several business people claimed they had bought the land from the villagers.
According to police, a Supreme Court decision last year upheld the business people’s claims to the land and the residents had been warned three times already that they were to be evicted.
The Feb 21 incident in Chamkar Mon district’s Tonle Bassac commune’s Rik Reay community, began when construction workers armed with rocks and sticks fought with a group of villagers who were protesting the workers removal of boundary markers the villagers erected on the land, the group said in their statement.
At least three villagers were injured including one person who was knocked unconscious during the fracas, the groups said in their statement.
Chamkar Mon district police chief Uch Sokhan could not be reached for comment but Tonle Bassac commune chief Khat Narith said that he was unaware who started violence because police only arrived after it ended. (Additional reporting by Tim Sturrock)