Police and military police charged into a crowd of villagers waiting outside the Department of Forestry on Thursday evening, allegedly using truncheons and electric batons to disperse about 175 people, rights workers and logging monitors said.
The villagers had repeatedly picketed the department throughout the week, demanding meetings with logging companies they say are destroying the forests they depend on for their livings.
A dozen people were hurt, according to a statement from the logging monitor Global Witness, including one man whose foot was broken.
Another villager who was in the crowd waiting to see if the forestry Department would organize a workshop on forestry management died hours after security forces broke up the gathering.
Hiem Sao, 29, reportedly died of a heart attack, according to Eva Galabru, country representative of Global Witness.
“He had no known heart conditions and he was very young. I don’t know if [Hiem Sao’s death] was linked to the events of last night, but it’s hard not to make the connection—electric batons being used in the rain,” she said. “They [the police] brutalized these people.”
Andrew Cock, a forestry policy adviser with NGO Forum, which sponsored the villagers’ visit to Phnom Penh, said a doctor who examined Hiem Sao suggested fright, or surprise at being attacked by police might have caused the heart attack.
“We can’t say whether this was something that by chance occurred on the same day or if it was in some way aggravated by a baton,” he said.
Police officials Friday denied their officers beat the villagers. Both Daun Penh district police and military police commanders claim the villagers had blocked the gate to the Forestry Department and an official there had called authorities to move them.
A foreign adviser with the Forestry Department also said villagers had blocked the gate and wanted to meet department director Ty Sokun. He said he did not see police clash with the villagers because he returned to his office.
“[The villagers] weren’t allowing the officials out and that’s why the department officials requested competent authorities to disperse them,” said district deputy police chief Sim Bunsong.
He said he was unaware that anyone had died.
Cock said he was “astonished” by the police response to what he says was a legitimate request for a meeting with government and logging company officials.
Earlier in the day village representatives had given a written request for a workshop to department officials, only to later have the request handed back with a refusal to meet. The villagers decided to wait for Ty Sokun, but were set upon by police around 6:45 pm. “It’s quite stunning. People requesting a workshop are beaten up. I can only assume it was to make an example of them,” Cock said.
Villagers had hoped to discuss 25-year logging plans that have been recently released by the logging sector with little or no room for scrutiny from those they will affect most.
NGOs and forestry experts have blasted the plans—meant to show how logging companies can profit from the forests while preserving the environment and villager’s livelihoods—for proposing deforestation “similar to the worst excesses of the 1990s,” the NGO forum wrote to the Forestry Department.
Cock said this incident was another indication that Cambodia’s donors have perhaps not fully grasped the country’s still dire logging situation.
“There is all this donor support for forestry reforms, yet when it comes down to people living in these areas simply requesting rights protected under the law and they get this kind of response….The donors need to look a little harder at what they’re supporting,” he said.