Police in Pursat province’s Krakor district said Monday they are poised to arrest a suspect in a grenade attack on farmers protesting against the massive land concession awarded to property and timber giant Pheapimex Co Ltd.
The attack on Saturday, which wounded eight protesters sleeping in hammocks in Ansa Chambak commune, was the latest development in a bitter dispute over Pheapimex plans to clear forest and establish a eucalyptus plantation on more than 300,000 hectares in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces.
Krakor district police Chief Born Vanna said police may decide today whether to arrest at least one suspect. He declined to say whether the suspect was one of the hundreds of villagers who attended the protest, though he had suggested on Sunday that local protesters perpetrated the grenade attack against themselves to cause trouble for the company.
“We cannot arrest yet…but we want to decide tomorrow,” he said by telephone Monday.
Human rights workers, however, worried that the arrests would be used to muffle those who have been most vocal in opposing the logging company’s plans.
Chan Soveth, an investigator for local rights NGO Adhoc, and Chun Socheat, senior investigator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said separately that police told them they planned to arrest two protesters.
Villagers said they were worried by the possible arrests and dismissed the suggestion that they were responsible for the attack.
“The protesters are not crazy people who would throw a grenade at themselves in order to create trouble,” said protester Um Huot.
Chan Soveth and Chun Socheat also said police movements were suspicious on the night of the attack. They noted that reports that police had spoken to the protesting villagers less than half an hour before the attack.
“Villagers claimed a car arrived at the company’s compound about an hour before the grenade attack. Then about 30 minutes before the attack, police shouted and ordered villagers to turn off their light and go to sleep,” Chun Socheat said.
Villagers said Monday they were determined to continue opposing the development despite the attack, and said they were disappointed with the outcome of a meeting with local authorities and officials from the Ministry of Land Management and Ministry of Agriculture on Monday.
Local village representatives presented officials with three demands—for Pheapimex to cease clearing forest in Pursat’s Krakor district and Kompong Chhnang province’s Tuk Phos and Baribor districts; for police to find the perpetrators behind the grenade attack; and government assistance to establish community forests.
Officials at the two-hour meeting refused, saying all the forest belongs to Pheapimex, the villagers said.
Ung Samy, Pursat provincial governor declined to comment Monday on the attack or the negotiations.
He also declined to name the district governor he appointed to attend the meeting. Krakor district governor Srey Kosal also declined to comment.
Observers have said the government’s handling of the grenade attack and protests is being closely watched, especially as they highlight mounting criticism of the government’s policy of awarding economic concessions to well-connected private companies.
UN Human Rights envoy Peter Leuprecht released a report Sunday condemning the government’s land concession policies, and noted that concessions are awarded in secret to companies, about which little is known. The agreements offer scant benefit to government coffers and generally hurt locals.
“[A]t the local level the activities of the concessionaires often have serious social, economic, and cultural consequences, leading to the dispossession and impoverishment of local populations, and sometimes giving rise to considerable conflict,” he said.
Leuprecht and others have also accused the government of allowing land concessions as a loophole for logging companies to get around the current logging ban.
Local villager Um Huot, echoed those criticisms.
“I would be satisfied if the investment was to construct a factory or a company which would hire villagers to work for them, but if the investment is in order to destroy my forest, then please go away from us,” he said.