Police in Mondolkiri province on Tuesday burned down more than 130 shelters belonging to a community of ethnic Bunong families in Keo Seima district that authorities accuse of squatting on a Vietnamese rubber plantation, a local official said.
The more than 200 Bunong families, however, claim that the Binh Phuoc 1 company—which was granted a 5,100-hectare concession in the area—has been encroaching on land they have been farming for generations.
Deputy district governor Yin Sok Leng said he led about 30 police and military police officers to the disputed area in Sre Chhouk commune on Tuesday morning to burn down 172 temporary shelters scattered across 1,500 hectares of farmland located inside the Vietnamese concession. But before the officers could raze all of the structures, he said, they were scared away by angry farmers wielding wooden sticks.
“I led the force to burn the shelters, as they were erected illegally on the company’s land,” Mr. Sok Leng said, adding that 136 of the shelters were destroyed in the operation.
Prob Chip, 36, whose shelter was among those burned down, said the police and military police mostly provided protection to a group of Binh Phuoc 1 workers, who carried out the destruction.
“The company used six workers and started to burn the shelters from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. while police and military police gave protection to the workers,” Mr. Chip said.
“Police tried to burn the rest of the shelters in the late afternoon, but they stopped after about 60 villagers carrying sticks came to stop them,” he said, adding that there was no physical violence and that the farmers would attempt to build new shelters today.
Mr. Chip said that in 2012, commune authorities formally awarded the Bunong community a plot of land on which to grow cassava, mango and bananas. Soon afterward, Binh Phuoc 1 representatives asked the locals if they could construct a steel bridge across a stream that ran through the plot in order to transport wood through the area. The community agreed, but the company instead used the bridge to bring in excavators to clear the families’ land.
Eang Mengly, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the government issued a 5,100-hectare concession to Binh Phuoc 1 in 2012 but that the company had lately been operating beyond its boundaries.
“The families have tried to ask for help from the government and relevant institutions, but they have not offered a solution for the villagers because they protect the interests of the company,” Mr. Mengly said.
Representatives of Binh Phuoc 1 could not be reached.