Ponhea Krek district, Kompong Cham province – Deliberations over whether or not to sneak into Krek rubber plantation and steal fallen resin did not last long.
Oun On, 41, and his wife Sun Sineath, 46, were sitting on a wooden platform beneath their stilted house in Krek commune’s Serei Monkul village with Khim Boung, a family friend. Both men smoked cigarettes as Khim Boung introduced the idea of trying to steal resin. At about 5 pm on Dec 30, after around half an hour of discussion, the two men sped off on their motorbikes.
By midnight, Oun On had been beaten and stabbed to death by four plantation guards. Khim Boung managed to escape and hide until morning.
Oun On had never stolen resin before, according to his wife Sun Sineath, but many people in the area had, and with four children worth of school fees and meals, not to mention difficulties farming his one-hectare paddy field, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
There were stories of villagers getting beaten and arrested. But most got away with it, and the handful that were arrested usually earned their freedom after a slap on the wrist and a modest fine by the plantation guards.
“I tried to stop him, but he said ‘Don’t worry. Others have gone and come back and were able to earn a little money,'” Sun Sineath said in an interview last week.
“It was the first time for my husband and the last time in his life…. [T]he activity of my husband was stupid, but we lack money, so I can understand,” she added.
Situated on the fringe of Krek rubber plantation, there are few that the rubber industry does not touch in Serei Monkul village.
According to village chief Sum Khom, 30 percent of the 247 families in the village provide labor for the nearby plantations. The other 70 percent are farmers.
Sum Khom said Oun On’s death was the first of its kind in his village, and will likely deter villagers from stealing-but only for a while.
“It’s in their culture already…. There isn’t a good enough reason to stop,” he said. “Especially when the [rice] harvest is over. They have no other job.”
Prices for soiled resin can be as low as 1,000 riel per kilogram, but gutsy thieves who steal from the bowls where clean, quality resin collects can make $1 or more per kilogram, Sum Khom added.
About 15 km down a paved road that runs the edge of the plantation and abuts the orderly grid of rubber trees, each at a measured three-meter distance from the next, lies Krek commune’s Kor village, where Pech Voeun, 57, is still seeking justice for the death of his 19-year-old son, who was shot dead in 2005.
When he saw his son’s body, Yun Yean’s jaw and neck were broken. There was a bullet hole in one side of his chest and out the other.
“We can conclude that he was tortured, but that he didn’t die, so they shot him,” Pech Voeun said, adding that he no longer wants compensation, just justice.
“I have never heard of one case where the suspect gets prosecuted,” he added.
Pech Voeun said that his family is not poor-and gestured to a $2,500 plowing machine as proof-but that his son Yun Yean had been persuaded by a group of about 20 youths to enter the plantation on the night of his death.
Koy Kim Eng, assistant to Oknha Siek Pisith, who heads the 4,000-hectare Krek plantation, said plantation guards are no longer allowed to carry rifles, but they do carry sticks, knives and slingshots to protect themselves from thieves who may be similarly armed.
He said that in the case of Oun On, who he accused of having been involved in the illicit resin trade for years, the guards only beat him lightly.
“Basically, the victim tried to escape from the [plantation] guards and then he collided strongly… [with the] rubber trees,” Koy Kim Eng said by telephone last week.
It is wrong to blame the guards, Koy Kim Eng added, as they have a difficult job, especially at night, and in some places there are only three people to protect around 100 hectares.
“Sometimes those guards are blamed whenever resin is lost or stolen from lots under their responsibility…. Actually, the guards are poor people because they do not have their own houses and only live on the rubber plantation land and have to work both day and night shifts,” he added.
Resin thieves steal both soiled resin, worth up to 2,500 riel per kg, which can be used to make shoe soles once cleaned, as well as pure resin, for which prices can reach up to 6,000 riel per kg, he said. Some thieves can make between $15 and $20 per night, he said.
“The majority of suspected thieves are not so poor…they are lazy…. They only keep their energy to steal resin,” he added.
In neighboring Tbong Khmum district, about 20 km off the paved road in Thma Pech commune, 35-year-old Chim Hok was beaten and arrested for attempting to steal resin on Jan 12. Where he lives in O’Pi village, the siding on some houses is made from cardboard boxes.
“Everyone goes to do it,” Chim Hok said of the stealing from rubber plantations. “We are poor-that’s why.”
Chim Hok said that he goes twice a week to steal and can collect up to 3 kg of resin, sometimes more. “The days we can earn more, we can eat more,” he said.
When asked if the dangers of being beaten would deter him from future stealing, Chim Hok couldn’t give a definitive answer but blamed Chup rubber plantation for keeping local villagers poor.
Chim Hok said locals have to rent land to farm from Chup plantation for $100 per hectare per year, while the rental of a machine to harvest soy beans costs $25 per hectare, he said.
“Truly, the company exploits us,” he added.
Seb Chantha, Chup rubber plantation police chief, said O’Pi villagers are persistent resin thieves who fight back when caught inside the plantation. He said the 10,000-hectare plantation he has been guarding for more than 20 years loses about three tons of resin a day to thieves, but that guards are instructed only to fine the thieves $2.50 when they are caught.
“Some villagers can earn $10 to $20 a day from selling stolen resin to other businesspeople, which is why some of them have rejected farm work [where they] can earn between $2 or $3 a day,” he said.
“Although they cannot become rich from stealing, they can easily support their family with the income of selling stolen resin,” he added.
Lim Kay, 10, from O’Pi, said he has stopped going to school because he has no money for clothes or books. He now spends his time trying to steal resin. Lim Kay said he has attempted to steal from Chup plantation five times already, and has been arrested on three of those occasions. Twice he has received light beatings, he said, adding that he only steals during the day, as it is common knowledge that the guards are harsher at night.
“I am scared but I need the money for clothes and rice,” said Lim Kay. “Don’t forget seasoning to go with your rice,” said a small voice from the back of a tiny crowd gathered around the boy.