National military police are investigating how and why two villagers were shot Friday during a land dispute protest in Kandal province, National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha said Monday.
The military police officers involved in the dispute have been suspended while other military police officials review the incident for improper use of force: “I ordered authorities to suspend them and keep them and their weapons at the Kandal province military police office during the investigation,” Sao Sokha said, though he could not specify the exact number of detained officers.
“If they shot the villagers who did not have something [a weapon] in their hands, they were wrong. They are military police and they have a duty to protect the villager,” he said.
“If [the officers] made a mistake, they will be punished by law,” Sao Sokha added.
The gunfire was the result of a conflict between villagers and the Heng Development Company, which has since late December been attempting to clear a 300-hectare swath of Kandal Stung district land in Kandork and Ampov Prey communes.
Guards allegedly fired gunshots Dec 28 to discourage families from entering the area, and the next day about 150 villagers protested outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house near Takhmau town.
Military police were then sent last week to keep watch at the dispute site while the company attempted to clear the land, according to local rights groups Licadho and Adhoc.
Tensions escalated Friday when about 200 villagers surrounded bulldozers and excavators in an attempt stop them from clearing the land.
Two villagers, Ny Seyha and Yean Bros, were shot by gunfire allegedly from military police. The clash left Ny Seyha, 28, with a bullet lodged in his right arm and wounds on the right side of his abdomen. His cousin, Yean Bros, 23, was hit just below his right hip.
On Monday, both men were recovering at the Chey Chumneas Referral Hospital in Kandal province.
“When they ordered us to get away, we refused and said that we came to protect our land. We stood to protect our land and did not cause violence,” Ny Seyha said while lying in a rickety metal hospital bed.
Military police ordered the villagers out many times, Ny Seyha said, and eventually fired warning shots into the air. “When we refused to go away, the military police shot directly at us. They shot us like we were in the middle of a war,” he said.
His family has been farming rice and lotus in the disputed area since 1993, Ny Seyha said.
Back at the land dispute site, police are blocking roads and preventing outsiders from entering the area, according to rights groups that are attempting to monitor the ongoing dispute.
Ouch Leng, a land officer for Adhoc, said up to 100 police officers are stationed on the disputed land and in villages in the area.
“They are deploying force to intimidate the villagers,” Ouch Leng said. “When the villagers see the force, they are afraid to protest,” he said.
“They are public roads, so they should not block them. It is breaking the law,” he added.
Shrugging off the shooting of the villagers, Heng Development Company owner Sieng Chanheng, said it wouldn’t hinder progress toward the installation of an industrial agricultural farm on the land claimed by the villagers.
“I will continue to develop on my land where I have a land title,” she said.
“We cannot delay again because in 2005 we delayed to solve problems with them and it affected our interests,” she added.