Twenty villagers in Kompong Speu province are in hiding after arrest warrants were issued for them earlier this month over a land dispute that turned violent, an official with local rights group Adhoc said Sunday.
The conflict occurred on Nov 14 when more than 10 soldiers and armed police were sent to guard a disputed plot of land where the villagers live in Oral district’s Sangkeo Sratob commune, said Roth Thavy, an Adhoc investigator in the province.
Police, who said they were there to prevent illegal forest clearing, allegedly beat villagers and fired bullets in the air when villagers protested their presence and one allegedly tried to grab a rifle from police, he said.
Roth Thavy added that some of the 20 are now hiding in the province’s jungles, while others are in Phnom Penh or with relatives in other provinces.
Kompong Speu Deputy Governor Riem Chan Mony said last week that arrest warrants have been issued for the 20, though Provincial Police Chief Nop Oeurn said Sunday that police have not made any arrests.
Oral district Governor Chem Sarim denied last week that the police had beaten protesters or fired their guns, but alleged that villagers chased officials with weapons.
“Villagers carried hoes, knives and sticks to chase our officials,” he said, adding that one villager grabbed a policeman’s rifle and fired it in the air before fleeing into the forest, though a woman returned the rifle the following day.
Villagers have reported to Adhoc that 301 families live on the disputed land, most of them since 2002, though some have lived there since 1997, Roth Thavy said.
He added that many government, police and military officials have laid claim to the land, and that some of them hold titles, while the villagers lack any legal documentation.
Chem Sarim said less than 10 families are long-term residents on the land.
“Actually there are only nine families who are the real residents living there, and the others are rich people coming from other districts in the province to grab the forest,” Chem Sarim said.
He added that authorities are offering the nine families alternative land in the province that has been set aside by the provincial social affairs department for villagers without land.