Masked Farmers Raid, Burn Down Community Forestry Office

Officials are still investigating an arson attack on a Mondolkiri province community forestry monitoring office by dozens of masked farmers on Friday, in what they suspect was retaliation for preventing the farmers from growing cassava in a protected area.

About 40 to 60 people, most covering their faces with scarves, confronted a park ranger outside an office overseeing the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary before setting the building alight on Thursday, officials said.

The group was angry after they had been stopped by local authorities from farming in the protected area in Keo Seima district’s Sre Preah commune, said Kong Sotheara, the sanctuary’s project manager, on Friday. He estimated the group was made up of 60 people.

“Some of them demanded that they be allowed to clear forestland to grow cassava while others burned down [the building],” he said.

Once the building was ablaze, the group scattered and made their getaways on motorbikes, he said. No one was injured.

Commune chief Pyeu Pe said the building, a wooden structure with a corrugated-tin roof, was erected in 2015 with the intention of curbing deforestation.

“As far as I know, about 40 men on 25 motorbikes arrived and began burning it down,” Mr. Pe said, adding that he did not know the identity of the arsonists.

Families from Kompong Cham, Kratie and Prey Veng provinces began moving to the area in 2013, he said, and had been attempting to illegally clear forest for farming.

The roughly 300 new families were making the task of preventing deforestation increasingly difficult for the Bunong ethnic minority group who have lived on the land for generations, said Mr. Pe, who is himself Bunong.

“We Bunong rely on the forest. When the forest is gone, it is quite hard for us to live,” he said.

Commune police chief Pen Bunroeun said on Sunday he was investigating the case, but was as yet unsure who was responsible.

(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)

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