Rovieng district, Preah Vihear province – On land deep in the jungle here, violence and arrests have erupted between local mining communities and a Malaysian company exploring for gold.
Locals and human rights groups say two men—one of whom was killed—have been shot by police since May for allegedly trespassing and stealing gold on land occupied by Delcom Cambodia Limited, a company co-owned by Cambodian investors and the Malaysian oil and gas services provider Deleum Group.
A further seven men have been arrested by authorities.
As Cambodia in the last decade has opened its hinterlands to industrial exploitation and development, clashes and tensions have sprouted across the nation between investors and local communities who say such commerce has come roughshod over their lands and their rights.
Villagers here say they have long depended on artisanal gold mining, or mining without heavy industrial methods, for their livelihoods and that the Delcom development is denying this to them by force. However, the company and local officials accuse local villagers of banditry and stealing from a legitimate operation.
“I have two children and have no other job to earn money to support my family,” said Kuoy Bin, a 33-year-old Kuy ethnic minority, who said that soon after he learned to walk he began working in Preah Vihear province as an artisanal miner.
Kuoy Bin is part of a community of 937 families in Romtom commune╤414 families are indigenous Kuy╤who have been artisanal miners here for generations. But he said he was arrested on June 3 alongside two other men after he ventured inside the boundaries of Delcom Cambodia’s operational site to collect earth that he said had been left over by the company.
“We heard gun shots, but nobody was injured. Suddenly, I saw a group of about five armed police chasing us. They finally caught us and detained us at the district police station,” he said.
According to a copy of the release warrant signed by deputy provincial prison director Ros Chanthy on July 9, Kuoy Bin’s charges have since been dropped along with the other two men by order of Judge Veng Bunthoeun.
The government in May said it would adopt a policy with aims to legalize the work of artisanal miners. But local miners say children from mining families have started looking for jobs as migrant workers in Thailand and Malaysia as digging for gold in the traditional manner becomes more difficult.
Calls to Deleum Group in Kuala Lumpur were referred to a representative for Delcom Cambodia in Phnom Penh who declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He told a different story than the villagers did. The shootings at the site had occurred when groups of armed locals approached the company’s compound in the early morning hours in late June to try to steal gold, he said.
“The second time there was 17 people. Some would be on the perimeter outside, and some would be inside the compound carrying guns,” he said, referring to an episode in late June during which he said all suspects were caught on camera.
He said that when guards approached, a shootout began, leaving one villager dead. The company does not hire police at the site, but provincial authorities have told officers to secure the area after the firm complained of stealing, he said.
“We feed them [the police] and take care of their health. We do not provide any guns,” he said.
In Rovieng district alone there are four mineral companies in various stages of development, but all are looking to exploit either gold and iron ore, said Chim Sophal, project coordinator for the NGO Human Rights Development for Community Sustainability Organization, which is based in Rovieng district.
He added that there had been no upfront consultation with locals from any company even though this was required by law.
“The name of the firm and the exploration types must be disseminated to local villagers,” Mr Sophal said. “The government’s body in charge of minerals has never checked that the company respects the rights of local villagers.”
Mr Sophal said Delcom Cambodia had been granted access to 46,000 hectares of land in Romtom commune. The other three companies in the district looking for iron ore are still in their early stages and have yet to stir up any noticeable tension, he said.
According to Mr Sophal, tensions between locals and Delcom Cambodia first surfaced in early May when a local resident was shot in the leg by police guarding the firm’s operations. Another man was shot dead by guards in late June, he said.
In addition to the shootings, three men in Trapaing Tontoem village in Romtom commune were arrested for stealing on June 3 by police who had been employed by the mineral company to guard the area, he said. All three men were released on July 9 with their charges dropped.
In the neighboring Tuol Veng village, another man was arrested on June 27, and on July 2 three more men were arrested on charges of robbery from Delcom Cambodia’s site. All four remain detained at Preah Vihear provincial prison, Mr Sophal said.
Kan Sok, a 55 year-old artisanal miner in Romtom commune, has been desperate ever since her son, Mao Sokmuon, 39, was arrested by police on June 27.
“My son was invited by commune police to join a drinking party. When he approached the commune police office, he was escorted and taken to provincial police where he had his clothes taken off and his phone and belongings confiscated,” she said. “The arrest of my son has been done to discourage and frighten other local miners from working in the area where the firm is present.”
Provincial police chief Mao Pov said all the arrests made so far were because suspects had taken gold from the site where Delcom is operating.
“Police are still hunting for at least another 10 suspects,” he said.
He denied that police had shot people or mistreated detainees.
“No, no, it did not happen like this,” he said. “The deployment of police is to protect people, not to shoot people.”
He also said police in the area had been stationed to secure the sites of all mineral companies in the district and not just that of Delcom Cambodia.
According to data at the provincial mining department, there are a total of 13 mineral companies with more than 20 licenses for conducting studies in Preah Vihear province, covering an area of roughly 6,000 square km of land in Rovieng, Chheb, Chey Sen, Kulen and Sangkum Thmei districts.
Richard Stanger, chairman of the Cambodian Association of Mining and Exploration and Companies, said Delcom Cambodia had started carrying out exploration activities in an area that is generally perceived to be prospective.
Though he was aware of the confrontations over the firm’s activities, he said the problem was isolated and not typical in Cambodia.
“I heard there were some people trying to steal stuff. But it’s pretty rare that you get this sort of thing happening,” he said.
Chhour Smach, 56, a member of the Kuy minority and an artisanal miner, said security outside the company’s perimeter had been arbitrarily taking up guns against miners simply carrying out their age-long profession.
His nephew, Chhour Hoeurng, was shot in the leg by police in May while hard at work.
“He was mining by hand for gold next to the fence of the company. He was lucky he was able to escape, otherwise he would have been gunned down,” he said.