More than seven months after government security forces violently evicted hundreds of people living in Kratie province’s Broma village to quell a so-called secessionist movement, more than 70 families are still being prevented by patrolling soldiers from returning to the site of their former homes, local officials said.
Kompong Damrei commune clerk Khin Doung said that 74 families, who since 2008 have lived and farmed on more than 80 hectares of land in Broma, last week tried to return home to harvest cassava crops they planted prior to being evicted with the rest of the villagers in May.
The families, however, were prevented from returning to their homes by a group of more than 20 soldiers, Mr. Doung said.
“Those people are really the owners of the cassava, but soldiers banned them from entering their land, because the high-level authorities are worried that something bad might happen on this land,” Mr. Doung said.
Commune police chief Men Kunthea said 18 representatives of the families on Monday went to the commune police station to request that local authorities intervene on their behalf.
“We have made a report to the provincial authorities, asking them to find a solution to allow villagers to return to their land for harvesting,” Mr. Kunthea said.
Mr. Doung said that a total of 90 provincial- and district-level Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers patrol three sections of the village daily.
“The top officials deployed soldiers on the land because they suspected that there are still secessionists in the area,” he said.
But provincial police chief Chuong Sieng Hak said the soldiers in Broma village are only there to keep its residents safe.
“We deployed police and soldiers [at the time of the evictions in May] in order to provide security for villagers because it is a remote area,” Mr. Sieng Hak said. “It is because we are worried about robberies, which happen sometimes.”
But villagers say the troops make them feel anything but safe, and avoid the three areas that the soldiers monitor.
“I am afraid they will arrest me and put me in jail, so I never travel near that land,” said one villager, who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
Broma residents say they are treated with suspicion by local authorities, and are followed if they leave the village.
On May 16, government forces launched a massive operation to evict the Broma villagers, ostensibly to subdue a rural uprising. A 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, was shot dead in the process.
The raid followed months of protests by the villagers against the Casotim rubber company, which they accused of encroaching on their farmland.
Rights groups said the government’s claim that villagers were part of a secessionist movement was merely an excuse to evict them on behalf of Casotim.
“There is no justification for heavily armed soldiers in the area. We need more information, and the residents need more information, as to why there is such a heavily armed force,” said Nicolas Agostini, a technical assistant for land and natural resource issues for rights group Adhoc.
“What the authorities should do now is disclose all information about the Casotim concession,” Mr. Agostini added.
According to rights group Licadho, Casotim has a 15,000-hectare land concession located about 10 km from Broma.
It also has a 100,000-hectare logging claim that overlaps with the village, but this was suspended in 2001, when the government put a moratorium on timber concessions.