Military police assisting a private company to clear land farmed by about 300 families in Kandal province allegedly shot two protesting villagers Friday, local residents and human rights groups said Sunday.
Heng Development Company has since late December been attempting to clear a 300-hectare swath of land claimed by villagers in the Kandal Stung district communes of Kandork and Ampov Prey.
On Dec 28, guards allegedly fired gunshots to discourage families from entering the area, and the following day about 150 villagers protested at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house near Takhmau town.
Military police were sent last week to stand guard while the company again attempted to clear the land, according to statements released Sunday by local human rights groups Licadho and Adhoc.
When about 200 villagers attempted Friday to stop bulldozers from clearing the land, military police fired shots that hit Ny Seyha, 28, in the arm and stomach, and Yean Bros, 23, in the waist, Licadho stated.
“Both men are being treated at Chey Chumneah Referral Hospital in Kandal province,” Licadho Monitoring Supervisor Am Sam Ath said by telephone Sunday. According to Pen Makara, an investigator with Adhoc, Yean Bros is recovering well but Ny Seyha needs an operation that could be life-threatening.
On Saturday, clashes continued with one villager being rendered unconscious by an electric baton, Am Sam Ath said, adding that about 60 military police on site Sunday prevented Licadho staff from entering the area to observe the situation.
Both Adhoc and Licadho called for the prosecution of the officers who injured the villagers.
However, Kandal province deputy governor Chuon Sovann said that military police did not intentionally fire on the villagers.
Military police were sent to guard the company employees, Chuon Sovann said, but they had to protect themselves when surrounded by angry villagers armed with axes and machetes.
“They shot into the air and at the ground to protect themselves, but the bullets ricocheted into the villagers,” Chuon Sovann said by telephone Sunday.
“It is not wrong that they shot to protect themselves,” he said, adding that hospital officials had told him that the two wounded villagers had only suffered minor injuries.
National military police commander Sao Sokha said Sunday he was busy in meetings and unable to comment, while his deputy Vong Pisen referred questions to Kandal province military police commander Meas Sovann.
Meas Sovann did not answer repeated phone calls Sunday.
Kandal Stung district military police commander Chun Vanny said Sunday he was too busy to comment, while his deputy Svay Sokha said he was unaware of the incident.
A villager from Kandork commune who protested Thursday and Friday said by telephone Sunday that he has farmed 1 hectare of land in the disputed area since 1990.
He said the villagers demonstrated nonviolently, forming circles around the excavators and bulldozers and refusing to move until gunshots broke out.
“[Military police] shot at us like birds. They attempted to kill us,” said the villager, who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
The villager’s wife, who is six months pregnant, was nearly hit by a bullet, he added.
Heng Development Company owner Sieng Chanheng said Sunday that she was unaware of the most recent outbreak of violence at the site, but she maintained that her company rightfully purchased the disputed land in 1996.
“We have all the selling documents and witnesses,” she said by telephone. Villagers only came to live there in 2002, after the company had cleared a road and built a dam, she said.
“Our company is the one who built that dam and those areas were clusters of dirt previously, with no villagers living there,” she said by telephone.
Licadho and Adhoc, meanwhile, argue that the families have farmed the land since the early 1990s and are the rightful owners.
According to the statement from Licadho, a 2006 court verdict upheld the complaint of 292 families against Heng Development for seeking to encroach on their land in these two communes.
“However, local land management officials subsequently refused to issue land titles to the villagers, and provincial and government officials reportedly refused to recognize the court verdict because they believed that the court was wrong,” Licadho said.
“The company and government authorities are using the military police, who are supposed to respect and implement judicial decisions, to actively violate a court verdict,” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge was quoted saying in the statement.