Military police in Mondolkiri province say they are searching for a guard working for a local rubber company who allegedly injured three villagers Saturday when he fired a bullet in their direction that ricocheted off a rock, prompting questions about the firm’s use of armed security.
Prum Saven, military police chief for Mondolkiri’s Pech Chreada district, said a group of villagers had strayed onto a plantation owned by the Khmer Rubber company when a security guard patrolling the property fired toward them, hitting 28-year-old Tek Ngiem with a bullet that ricocheted off the ground.
Two other men were cut by pieces of rock thrown up by the round, Mr. Saven said, adding that his officers were searching for the shooter, who may have fled the province.
“We think [he was] a security guard for the company because one of its five security guards is gone,” he said. “We received information that the suspect fled to Kratie province’s Snuol district, where he lives with his family.”
Contacted at the Mondolkiri provincial hospital Sunday, Mr. Ngiem was still waiting for doctors to remove the bullet from his right hip. He said he and seven other villagers had ventured into the forest on Saturday morning to check animal traps when they ran into three armed men—each dressed in camouflage and wielding an AK-47 assault rifle—who blocked their way and ordered them to turn back.
The group of trappers consented, he said, and had already started walking away when one of the guards fired.
“One of the three guards wearing camouflage uniforms shot once at the ground behind us, and then the bullet hit my right hip after bouncing off a rock,” Mr. Ngiem said. “At first I did not know I was wounded. I only realized later, when the blood started to come out, when I had already walked about 100 meters away.”
Yoeut Sarin, chief of Bosra commune, where the injured villagers live, said that over the past few weeks he had received multiple complaints that guards for Khmer Rubber were threatening to kill anyone entering the forest.
“I think this shooting was [done] to threaten the villagers so they don’t go into the forest,” he said.
Mr. Ngiem said Saturday’s shooting occurred in an area long considered to be a community forest, and he had no idea a rubber company had laid claim to the land.
But according to provincial Governor Eng Bunheang, Khmer Rubber was in 2012 awarded an 8,000-hectare concession in the area—including the site where the shooting took place—and was recently given permission to hire five security guards.
“We recently let the company use five security guards, after they asked [for them], but we do not know where they got them from,” Mr. Bunheang said.
“I think the company was worried about villagers who go onto their land and cut their trees,” Mr. Bunheang said, adding that the guards were, nevertheless, wrong to have used their weapons.
Khmer Rubber could not be reached for comment.
Rights groups regularly decry the use of armed security guards— and even police and military—by private companies to protect disputed land. Armed guards have on several occasions shot villagers protesting against the firms they are hired to protect.
Deputy provincial Governor Svay Sam Eang, however, defended the practice of employing armed government forces.
“Each company can ask for people from the provincial police or military,” Mr. Sam Eang said.
“Only the armed forces can use weapons legally; civilians cannot,” he added. While he did not know from where Khmer Rubber had recruited its guards, he was certain it was outside of Mondolkiri.