Ratanakkiri province police said Wednesday that they were forced to shoot out the tires of a truck in which members of the 34 solidarity groups, which operate state-owned but privately managed rubber plantations, were attempting to illegally transport two tons of resin for sale on the free market.
Deputy provincial police chief Hor Ang said that police were acting under orders from the provincial governor to stop the groups from selling resin to anyone other than Tai Seng Co, to whom they are contractually bound to sell by way of a 2000 government concession agreement.
The government semi-privatized Ratanakkiri’s state-owned plantations in 2000, granting the rights to harvest the resin to Tai Seng. By virtue of that concession, plantation workers were required to sell their resin to the solidarity group chiefs, essentially middlemen who, in turn, were bound to sell to Tai Seng.
The chiefs of the solidarity groups—remnants of worker collectives set up in the communist 1980s—announced Sunday that they were going to bypass Tai Seng, which only offers 4,800 riel per kilogram, and sell their resin on the free market in Kompong Cham province, where they could get 9,500 riel per kg.
“As the authority, I had to stop them because of the governor’s order,” Hor Ang said, adding that they tried to negotiate with the group chiefs for about an hour at a police roadblock, but didn’t get anywhere.
“Lastly, I had to shoot the tires [of the truck] to stop them. We shot three times only,” he said.
Once the truck was disabled, the solidarity group workers set it on fire to prevent police from confiscating it, and Hor Ang said they are seeking warrants for the arrest of three men believed responsible for doing so, including the solidarity groups’ chief representative, Chhe Chan.
Bun Tha, chief of Solidarity Group 23, claimed that the truck had only gone five meters when police opened fire on their truck.
“I am the owner of the rubber resin but they have regarded us as thieves…. Police fired four times at the car’s tires,” he said, adding that more than 60 police and military police were armed with AK-47s.
Chhe Chan, who is the co-chief of Solidarity Group 14, said that after the truck had been halted more than 60 Tai Seng workers came at the solidarity group workers, wielding sticks and axes. One worker was hit on the head with an axe and received 10 stitches, while three others sustained injuries, said Chhe Chan.
“The police did not crack down to help us,” he claimed, adding that police did not try to negotiate at all before opening fire. He also accused police of spraying about 30 shots in the direction of the workers.
Deputy provincial police chief Hor Ang said he didn’t see any fighting between Tai Seng and solidarity group workers.
Tai Seng Director-General Ly Hong Sin denied that he had paid his workers to attack the solidarity group workers.
“Why should I hire lots of people like that?” he asked. “He [Chhe Chan] just wants to make a problem because of the price.”
Ly Hong Sin said that Tai Seng cannot offer full market price for the resin because it is obliged to pay taxes yearly to the state, which owns the land.
“All the plantations belong to the state and I pay $300,000 yearly…. If I allow them to sell to others, I won’t have any money to pay workers’ salaries,” he said.
Provincial Governor Muong Poy, who earlier this week warned that he would arrest anyone who acted against the 2000 agreement, declined to comment on the incident Wednesday.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said that police did try to negotiate before opening fire.
“Police tried to talk to them for more than an hour, but [the solidarity groups] still insisted on driving across the roadblock,” he said.
Pen Bonnar said he saw the solidarity group workers fighting with another group of people, but could not say who they were. He did confirm that one solidarity group worker received a head wound.
He also said that it wasn’t right for the solidarity groups to burn the truck, which contained resin that ultimately belongs to the state.
“They should have a peaceful solution,” he said.
On Monday, Pen Bonnar said that the solidarity group chiefs have been repeatedly accused of exploiting their workers, paying them half of what the resin is worth and then selling it on to Tai Seng for a tidy profit, rather than letting workers sell directly to Tai Seng.
In 2007, an Agriculture Ministry directive disbanded the solidarity groups, but the directive has not yet been fully implemented.