More than one thousand villagers showed up at Siem Reap Provincial Court on Wednesday to file a formal complaint in an ongoing land dispute, claiming armed men threatened about 200 of them earlier in the day and tried to force them off their land, according to village representatives.
Police, however, disputed the villagers’ story, saying the farmers, wielding sticks and machetes, bullied the men, who then defended themselves by flashing handguns.
Khem Savoeun, a representative of the villagers, said about 40 men carrying handguns threatened the farmers at gunpoint Wednesday while they were working 475 hectares of disputed land in Chi Kreng district’s Anlong Samnor commune.
He said the villagers use the state-owned land for fishing and rice farming and accuse authorities, including Chi Kreng District Governor Kap Sophoan, of plotting to secretly sell the property where villagers have been farming for more than two decades.
Chi Kreng district police chief Touch Kosal said the 40 men, led by Chan Saroeun, the brother-in-law of Deputy Provincial Governor Chan Sophal, were attempting to ask the villagers to leave the land when the situation turned ugly.
“It is very hard for this problem because the villagers carry wooden sticks and machete and guard the rice fields,” Touch Kosal said.
Touch Kosal said Chan Saroeun is actually the victim because the villagers grabbed his hand and chased him. Chan Saroeun reportedly waved his weapon to scare off the villagers and then fled on foot, Touch Kosal added.
Chan Sophal declined to comment, saying he was in a meeting. Chan Saroeun could not be reached.
The land dispute has raged for roughly six months and has sparked protests outside the court, where the villagers have occasionally burned car tires.
Choung Ratana, a Siem Reap provincial governor’s cabinet member, said the situation would likely worsen before a solution is found.
The villagers said they have no plans to leave the disputed land.