o’reang district, Mondolkiri province – Phnong minority villagers in Dak Dam commune say they were threatened with violence by police and officials from Wuzhishan LS Group on Sunday, five days into their blockade of roads in the area intended to stop the Chinese paper pulp company from operating on their traditional lands.
About 250 commune residents, mostly men, have organized themselves into three groups to block the main road and two other smaller roads.
They are ignoring their crops and guarding the blockades around the clock and in shifts in order to stop the company transporting workers and planting baby pine trees on land the villagers claim.
At one of three road blockades set up by the villagers in the commune on Sunday, four men, including one Chinese Wuzhishan official and one policeman, were seen confronting about 30 villagers before their vehicle was forced to turn back by the protesters.
The officials had arrived at the blockade at about 10:30 am in a Toyota pickup and had asked to pass through in order to visit a Wuzhishan camp located nearby where Cambodian workers are housed, villagers said.
When they were refused permission to pass the blockade, the group of men in the pick-up told the villagers that they would call for armed police support to crack down on the protest, the villagers said.
As the vehicle drove off, the villagers then surrounded a police official, who had accompanied the pick-up truck on his motorbike, and questioned him about a cartridge of AK-47 bullets that villagers alleged he passed to a Chinese company official who was traveling in the pick-up.
“The police official gave the bullets to the Chinese man in order to threaten the villagers because he thought that the villagers would be afraid if they saw a gun,” alleged Tum Kram, a 31-year-old villager at the blockade.
Tum Kram said he confiscated the cartridge and counted out the bullets in front of the other villagers.
“There were 11 bullets,” he told reporters later.
“I confiscated them from [the police officer] in order to give them to the district police because we are afraid that this police officer will give the bullets to the Chinese men one more time,” he said.
The police officer denied he gave the bullets to the Chinese man and said he had, in fact, confiscated the bullets.
“I only drove my motorbike to check around the district, and I confiscated the bullets from the Chinese men,” said the officer who refused to give his name when asked by a reporter but was identified by local villagers as Chan Nary.
“The people accused me,” the officer said, adding that the villagers took the cartridge when he accidentally dropped it on the ground.
Despite confirmed reports that the Council of Ministers has ordered Wuzhishan to suspend operations pending an investigation into its controversial 10,000-hectare land concession, workers were seen planting baby pine trees on Sunday.
The protesting villagers claim the company has encroached on their farmlands and have desecrated their spirit forests and forest cemeteries. The company has the option of increasing its concession to 199,999 hectares.
Several young villagers were seen moving by motorcycle from one blockade to another on Sunday, updating villagers on the security of each of the blockades. Other villagers busied themselves by taking notes with pen and paper, and snapping photos of the Chinese and police officials who were stopped at the blockade.
Human rights workers and local government officials in Mondolkiri expressed concern on Thursday that the peaceful protests by the minority villagers could descend into violence amid threats by provincial Governor Thou Son to use force to end the road blockage.
Earlier this month, police used water hoses to dispersed about 800 Phnong villagers from Dak Dam and Sen Monorom communes who had walked several hours to the provincial capital to protest in front of the Wuzhishan office.
On Sunday, one Chinese Wuzhishan staff member, wearing military-style camouflage trousers and jacket imprinted with Chinese characters, was dismissive when approached at the company’s office in Sen Monorom town on Sunday.
“If you want information from the company, then you should ask the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh,” the staff member, who did not give his name, said in Chinese through an interpreter.
Villagers also remain resolute that their protests against the company will continue.
Nget Vandy, 23, of Dak Dam commune, said he would organize another protest in the provincial capital in the coming days.
Por Khna, 38, also from Dak Dam said that he was not afraid of the company, or of provincial officials.
“I will protest until I get my land back. I will protest until the end of my life,” he said.