Five people were shot dead and three seriously injured Monday morning when military police and police opened fire with AK-47 rifles on hundreds of Poipet villagers protesting their forced eviction from a disputed plot of land near the border town’s luxurious casino strip, officials said.
The killings were deplored by human rights groups and opposition parliamentarians.
Banteay Meanchey provincial and district authorities called the military police and police officers’ actions “regrettable” and promised to investigate.
Villagers Bun Ban, 35, Pich Bunthoeun 40, Mos Thon, 42, and San Sok, 42, died at the scene of the shooting in Kbal Spean village, located immediately behind the Star Vegas casino, and amputee Soeun Koeun, 42, died later in Mongkol Borei district hospital, according to police reports.
Four others were injured, including one military police officer who required six stitches to a wound on his back, police said.
“It is extremely regrettable that this horrible event happened in Poipet and our people were killed. We are conducting more investigations to find out what exactly happened,” Banteay Meanchey provincial Deputy Governor An Sum said.
“This is an accident,” he said.
Monday’s incident occurred after hundreds of police and military officers were deployed to protect workers charged with tearing down the homes of 218 families in Kbal Spean village.
At around 9 am, the heavily-armed officers and workers gathered outside the community and a court clerk read out an Oct 27, 2003, Appeals Court decision awarding village Chief Tin On the six hectares of land on which the families had built their homes, witnesses said.
Police then fired into the air, entered the community and began arresting villagers, many of whom were former RCAF soldiers and ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers, Chan Soveth, senior investigator for local rights group Adhoc, said on Monday.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights reported that the villagers threw stones: “The armed force retaliated by firing their guns a the people, arrested those who were caught and chased others away.”
According to Chan Soveth, at some point police shot and killed a man identified only as Sok as he tried to stop police from arresting the villagers.
“The other people got angry,” he said, adding he did not know whether Sok had a weapon at the time. Other villagers armed themselves with axes, knives, stones and flaming bottles of gasoline, he said.
In the ensuing melee, police fired into the crowd, killing three more villagers and wounding three others, who were rushed to Mongkol Borei district hospital. Another villager died in hospital.
Ham Sunrith, acting coordinator for Licadho’s monitoring unit, said three military police officers were also injured.
An AK-47 rifle and an assortment of knives, axes, meat cleavers and scythes were collected by police officers from the villagers’ homes.
Banteay Meanchey Military Police Commander Rath Srieng said on Monday night that a committee from the National Police, Interior Ministry and National Military Police and provincial officials will investigate the incident.
“I cannot say who is right or wrong, so far. We are sorry that this happened. The truth will come tomorrow,” Rath Srieng said, adding that one of his officers was injured when a villager threw a knife that hit him in the back. The wound required several stitches, he said.
Kay Leak, executive director of local NGO CD Cam, said his organization has been working with the Kbal Spean villagers for years. He said he was standing nearby when police fired into the crowd on Monday.
“I saw the people just lie down,” he said. “I saw them killed right in front of me.”
Kay Leak said he tried to take pictures but police grabbed his camera. “We were not allowed to take pictures.”
After the shooting, the villagers scattered and workers used bulldozers and other machinery to demolish their houses, he added.
By noon, only four women were allowed to return to Kbal Spean to gather their belongings. Many of those who had been arrested, accused of inciting violence, were handcuffed or had their hands tied with string and were corralled near their demolished homes.
They were later brought to O’Chrou police headquarters. Nine of the arrested, who were RCAF soldiers, were sent to the Banteay Meanchey military base, where they remained detained Monday night.
The UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Licadho and Adhoc sent teams to Poipet to investigate on Monday and refused to make further statements until they had more information.
Kimsuor Phirith, opposition parliamentarian for Banteay Meanchey province, called the killing of the villagers an unprecedented act of bloodshed.
“I would like to extend my regrets and condolences and strongly appeal to the local and international human rights organizations, and especially the government, to seek out and arrest and punish the offenders,” he said in a statement on Monday.
O’Chrou district Chief Keo San deplored the killings when contacted by telephone on Monday, but he refused to comment further other than to confirm the death toll.
In a statement issued Monday, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights condemned the use of “violence by government authorities.” According to the statement, the incident resulted in 34 arrests and five injuries.
The group called on the government to bring the officers involved to justice.