Human rights workers have accused police and soldiers of attacking more than a dozen Kompong Cham province villagers in a confrontation over land earlier this month.
At least 40 officials, including provincial police, military police and engineer corps soldiers, converged on a Stung Trang district village and set upon villagers there on Dec 12. The villagers had tried to stop rubber plantation workers from cutting down rubber trees in the 55 hectares of land within the plantation where the villagers are now living, Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee official Chan Soveth said.
The incident began when Boeng Ket rubber plantation officials rolled into the village, carrying chainsaws and intending to cut down the trees. Villagers banged buckets to alert their neighbors and soon a crowd formed, Chan Soveth said.
At least one man, Hean Bunnath, 42, was shot when a police official opened fire, Chan Soveth said. Heang Chanthy, 37 and Hou Thy, whose age was unavailable, suffered head injuries in the melee, Chan Soveth said.
The 138 families had asked district authorities for permission to live in the rubber plantation and asked authorities not to cut down the rubber trees that throng their village, Chan Soveth said.
The government must immediately investigate the attack and punish the offenders, Chan Soveth said. The attackers treated the residents “like beasts,” he added
Kompong Cham province Governor Chieng Am denied that police beat the villagers, saying instead the villagers attacked a group of squatters and police and soldiers only intervened to break up the riot.
A provincial court awarded the disputed land to six families after they filed suit, Chieng Am said. Widespread squatting and the absence of reliable land records have plagued Cambodia for the past two decades, leading to countless land disputes. A land law was passed by Parliament in October 2001, but has had little affect on untangling the issue of land ownership. Rights observers, most notably UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht, have called land disputes a potential source of instability in the future.