Four men were arrested on Tuesday afternoon when armed police raided a house in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district where more than 50 villagers from Kompong Speu province’s Oral district were in hiding following the issuing of arrest warrants related to a bitter land dispute.
More than 20 officers descended on the house in Boeng Tumpun commune, arresting four men aged between 20 and 40 and sending the other at-large villagers scurrying out windows and over walls, said a 44-year-old villager who escaped the raid.
“The police drove cars and motorbikes into the house where we villagers have been hiding for a week after we found out that arrest warrants were issued,” said the villager who gave his name only as Phoung.
“They chased to arrest us after we reported to them that we were Oral district residents,” he said.
“We need intervention from [rights groups] to release those four men and to return the land where we have been living since 1997,” he added.
More than 100 villagers fled to Phnom Penh last week after a violent Nov 14 confrontation between villagers and more than 10 RCAF soldiers and police who were sent to clear land that the villagers claim to own.
A second villager who identified herself as Chamnan alleged that during the Nov 14 fracas police and military threatened to shoot villagers who refused to move from the land.
“Finally, they come to arrest us despite our complaints to the Council of Ministers, National Assembly and Samdech [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s cabinet,” she said.
Rights workers reported that the soldiers and officers beat villagers and fired their weapons when confronted by the locals, though one person did seize a rifle from the authorities and discharged bullets into the air before fleeing into the jungle. The rifle was returned the next day.
Arrest warrants were later issued for 20 villages. Chan Soveth, program officer for local rights group Adhoc, said the four have been transferred to Kompong Speu provincial police department.
Meach Samoeurn, deputy provincial police chief, confirmed the four were in provincial police custody but declined further comment.
Though many of the 301 families living on the disputed land have done so since 2002, some have lived there since 1997, Chan Soveth said.
He also noted that those who now claim the land, and who claim to have owned it since 1996, could not possibly have titles to it from that time, as the area was then under Khmer Rouge control.
“Therefore, how can [they] have land titles and which [government] department issued it for them?” Chan Soveth asked.