Thirteen villagers were arrested and dozens injured in a massive confrontation with armed forces who bulldozed and burned more than 100 homes on 17 hectares of disputed land in Sihanoukville’s Mittapheap district Friday morning, villagers and rights workers said. Municipal cabinet chief Sam Sam Ath said 47 soldiers and policemen were injured, three of them seriously.
The showdown began at 6 am, when around 150 police, military police and soldiers armed with AK-47s, shields, handguns and electric batons entered Pram Muoy village with a bulldozer, two fire trucks, an ambulance and 50 hired hands to clear the land.
More than 100 protestors wielding burning tires, rocks and slingshots blocked their way.
Municipal deputy police chief Yin Bunnath said that only one villager was injured in the fracas, adding that his forces were attempting to peacefully clear illegally constructed homes.
The dispute turned violent around 10 am, he said, when villagers began pelting police and soldiers with rocks and metal fishing weights from their slingshots. One villager chopped an officer in the shoulder with a knife, injuring him critically, he added. Police responded only by firing bullets in the air, he said.
Cheat Sotheary, a municipal coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said that the sustained police shooting was “like in the battlefields” and that villagers were beaten with batons.
Villager Soeng Heng, 44, said over 100 families had been living in Pram Muoy village since 1985, but that despite repeated requests, they were never granted land titles.
The dispute began last year when several powerful officials and wealthy people claimed villagers’ land as their own, Cheat Sotheary said.
Last September, one villager was shot and critically injured when armed forces attempted unsuccessfully to clear the land.
Sihanoukville governor Say Hak and deputy governor Prak Sihara declined to comment Friday.
Chhim Savuth, an investigator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the armed forces formed a juggernaut around the village, while the bulldozer did its work, and blocked rights workers and reporters from entering and restricting movement in and out of the village.
Late Friday, women and children were allowed to glean valuables from the wreckage of their homes, he added.
“Police should arrest all villagers and feed them in custody because all their property is now gone and they have no ability to find new homes,” he said.