chreh commune, Kompong Chhnang province – Sek Pheap, 29, Sek Lanh, 25, and Thong Voeun, 16, were among villagers at a millenium party last weekend that lasted until dawn.
But now two of them are dead and one in the hospital, as the result of a brutal attack while they were picking lotus in a disputed field less than 36 hours later.
“All the three were at the party with us, singing songs, dancing and watching performances until morning,” Sek Kong, Thong Voeun’s father, said Wednesday, still in disbelief over what happened later.
Police and witnesses say that Sek Pheap and Thong Voeun were beheaded with a long, sharp blade and Sek Lanh was seriously wounded Sunday afternoon in a field in nearby Kompong Kdar village.
Kompong Tralach district police and witnesses have identified the suspect as 47-year-old Yem Chhoeun, who they said had been ordered to move off the land by local authorities several years ago after trying to seize the farm as his own. But he had remained living on the land.
“There are many land disputes in this area, but those cases never escalate to violence like this,” said Srei Ra, deputy police chief. “This is the most extreme and worst case I everseen.” The suspect has not been caught and the police don’t know his whereabouts, Srei Ra said.
On Wednesday, the lone survivor of the attack, Sek Lanh, was sitting on a bed at the provincial hospital with a bandage on his head and blood stains still on his hands. “I’ve never imagined this thing could happen to me,” he said. “I can’t forget what happened to me and my sister.”
The incident, he recounted, occurred about 2 pm Sunday, as the three young workers crossed the Tonle Sap to their relative Suos Soeun’s farm to cut lotus to clear the land for rice planting.
A half hour later, Yem Chhoeun allegedly rushed to the lotus field from his house and snatched a 1-meter-long blade from Sek Pheap. Without words, Yem Chhoeun allegedly swung the blade three times toward Sek Lanh’s head from behind, with the last swing hitting his skull.
Writhing in pain, Sek Lanh said he next heard the blood-curdling screams from his sister, and said he saw Yem Chhoeun smashing the blade onto his sister Sek Pheap from the back.
“I saw him swinging the blade twice on my sister’s neck….
Panicked, I rushed to the east bank port to ride on a boat,” he said. He managed to cross the river and reach his brother’s house for help before he fell unconscious, he said.
According to police, Yem Chhoeun continued to swing the blade until he chopped off Sek Pheap’s head. Then, he turned to Thong Voeun and repeated the same action from behind until she was decapitated.
Suos Soeun, uncle of the Sek Lanh and Sek Pheap and grandfather of Thong Voeun, appeared to be in shock on Wednesday. “I deeply regret that I sent them to my field to get killed,” said Suos Soeun at the hospital. His face was devoid of emotion as if all his feelings had dried out.
“I knew Yem Chhouen is a violent guy, but he seemed to agree with our plan to cut lotus on the field he planted. I didn’t expect this kind of incident to occur,” Suos Soeun said.
Yem Chhoeun, owner of a small grocery shop, had been renting a piece of the land since 1993 without paying rent, according to Suos Soeun. He then started claiming he owned the land. Suos Soeun said he filed a complaint in 1996 to the district authority to solve the problem. Police confirm the local authority found Suos Soeun, a traditional doctor, was the legitimate land owner with a proper land title certificate and ordered Yem Chhoeun to move.
However, Yem Chhoeun had continued to live on the land and during this off season he planted lotus on Suos Soeun’s farm to sell. Suos Soeun notified Yem Chhoeun that he would cut lotus to prepare for rice planting and sent the three to the land on Sunday, he said.
Land and human right advocates also see the case as an extreme example.
Seng Sokhim, an investigator for the local human rights group Licadho, which monitors land disputes nationwide, said threats or physical and verbal intimidation are the most violent acts arising from land disputes.
Janet King, country director for the University of San Francisco Cambodia Law and Democracy Project, said the case might indicate the lack of social services and the country’s uncertain land tenure system.