Two people were shot dead by police on Thursday after two Japanese tourists were briefly held by villagers near the Preah Vihear temple on Wednesday—all sparked by a land dispute that has led to the arrest of a provincial deputy governor and the detention of around 200 local residents, authorities said.
The incident began Wednesday morning when Preah Vihear provincial authorities told 317 families living in Choam Ksan district’s Occheuteal protected forest that they had to leave the area, said Sam Saroeun, deputy bureau chief for the province’s land management department.
The villagers refused to leave, claiming that the land belonged to them, Sam Saroeun said, adding that villagers then cut trees to block Road 56, which leads to the disputed 60 hectares of land.
Provincial Deputy Governor Meas Savoeun was also arrested Wednesday by police for allegedly convincing the villagers that the land belonged to them, said Nuth Teng, chief of the RCAF commanding bureau for Preah Vihear.
Shortly after his arrest, two Japanese tourists traveling to the Preah Vihear temple were stopped and detained for two hours by the enraged villagers, who hoped that they could trade the tourists for Meas Savoeun’s release, Nuth Teng said.
Sem Chao Sok, provincial monitor for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that the tourists were released unharmed after a couple of hours. “They detained them for awhile and then released them,” he said.
On Thursday morning, nearly 300 police, military police and border police, along with provincial government officials, moved into Occheuteal, Nuth Teng said.
Shooting broke out resulting in the death of two villagers—a man and a woman—and injuries to five others, Kantuot Commune Chief Moul Mapp said Thursday, adding that no police were injured.
“The area is now empty with smoke and some police still guard the village,” he added.
Nuth Teng said that by Thursday evening police had detained 200 villagers, who are now being held at Sro Em village in Kantuot commune.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith wrote by e-mail that the villagers were not the victims in this dispute.
“The Preah Vihear incident was not caused by landless people, but rather by greed,” he wrote, adding that this was evident by the villagers attempt to exchange the Japanese tourists they had kidnapped for the arrested deputy governor.
“The authorities had to intervene,” Khieu Kanharith added.
Kaori Yoshimatsu, secretary in charge of public affairs for the Japanese Embassy, denied on Thursday that any Japanese citizens were involved in the incident.