kompong trach district, Kampot province – Last Friday evening, 24-year-old Sat Chheang prepared offerings of incense sticks and food to honor his deceased father, as is the tradition over the Khmer New Year.
But the Kampot province farmer could not have known that the offerings he was preparing would end up being used for his 45-year-old mother, who would be viciously killed that evening by her next-door neighbor.
The motive that led Meas Phorn, 44, to allegedly pound the widowed Hem Young with an ax began two years earlier in a dispute over land, and drew to a bloody close with a short verbal argument and then death.
Land and who owns it has the potential to tear rural Cambodia apart. That prediction is one of the rare sentiments shared by both Prime Minister Hun Sen and the three UN human rights envoys with whom he has successively clashed.
In Kampot and in communes and districts across Cambodia, land disputes are pitting neighbors against neighbors and family against family, said Chhim Sangwath, provincial coordinator of Human Rights Vigilance of Cambodia.
“It is a serious situation now. There is at least one land dispute case in each commune in the province,” Chhim Sangwath said Wednesday.
“The authorities don’t pay much attention and are not solving the problem. In some cases they prolonged the problem until people killed each other,” she said.
In 2004, Meas Phorn lodged a complaint with commune officials against Hem Young over the placing of 16 demarcation posts between his land and her property. He demanded $375 in compensation for land he believed he had lost to his neighbor.
The commune didn’t pursue the complaint, as it found that Meas Phorn had no grounds for it, said Hem Ngor, 72, the father of the slain woman.
“Since then we have never had any words or verbal argument with Meas Phorn. The story started with his cows eating the bean crop,” Hem Ngor said.
On Friday evening, Meas Phorn’s cattle wandered into his neighbor’s field in Trapaing Chrey village in Kompong Trach and began to feed on a crop of green beans. Hem Young went next door to complain, said her sister-in-law, Ket Khnoeun, 34.
“When my sister struggled with the murderer, his son ran home and took an ax and cut her from behind. His father had a hoe and his son had an ax. The two killed my sister,” she claimed.
Kompong Trach District Police Chief Khuon Vannan disputed that account, stating that Meas Phorn alone killed Hem Young.
“That woman cursed him. He couldn’t win the argument with her or control his anger; then he chopped her to death,” Khuon Vannan said.
“It was unintentional killing. He was thoughtless. He struck out in anger,” he said.
The suspect, his wife, their 19-year-old son and other family members fled their home after the killing and have not been seen since, he added.
Khuon Vannan said he was confident that the suspect would not get far. When an arrest warrant is issued, the suspect will be apprehended, he said.
“This is the first time that a land dispute between family and family led to a killing,” he added.