Villagers in Koh Kong province have charged that police, Forestry Administration officials and staff from the environmental NGO WildAid burned down three wooden abodes at an island village over the weekend, according to local rights group Adhoc.
Koh Kong Military Police Commander Thong Narong said by telephone Wednesday that WildAid asked his officials to cooperate in the operation, adding that five “small cottages” made of cheap material in Mondol Seima district were subsequently burned down.
He denied that his officials had burned homes and referred further questions to WildAid.
The owners of the dwellings were not at home Saturday when more than 10 individuals, including four WildAid staff members, provincial forestry officials and military police, arrived at Koh Por village, Bak Khlang commune, according to By Sopheap, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator.
WildAid staff claimed 13 of the village’s 100 houses were located within protected forest, and officials doused three with gasoline and set them on fire, By Sopheap said by telephone.
“I questioned the villagers from the families whose houses were burned down,” By Sopheap said.
Adhoc said one of the families had been living in the area since 2003, while the other families had arrived in 2004.
“Those villagers are very poor people,” he said. “They are not going to clear forest or grab land to sell it but they do need land to build homes.” By Sopheap said the same group of officials visited the site again on Monday, allegedly to burn more dwellings, and were confronted by 100 angry villagers who staged a protest.
“An [Adhoc] activist named Tan Sokhom, 37, was handcuffed and held by the WildAid officials and military police at the scene and her camera was confiscated at around 4 pm on May 22,” By Sopheap said.
“The WildAid officials destroyed the film and returned only the camera,” he alleged.
Adhoc’s chief investigator Ny Chakrya said the rights group intends to lodge a complaint about the incident at the provincial court for unlawful detention of their activist and destruction of property.
Thong Narong said he was unaware of an Adhoc official having been detained.
“WildAid officials asked my military police to cooperate with them to clear villagers’ homes to construct an office inside the protected forest,” Thong Narong added.
In a two-page e-mailed statement Wednesday, WildAid Country Director Suwanna Gauntlett did not discuss whether the NGO’s staff had been involved in razing villagers’ dwellings.
However, Gauntlett said a confrontation had taken place 2 km from the village on Monday.
During a “riot,” 80 people who had arrived in motorboats staged a demonstration, during which a protest leader “attempted to douse the WildAid adviser with fuel,” she wrote.
Between Friday and Monday, WildAid staff had been uncovering a large-scale logging and charcoal-making operation in the vicinity of Koh Por village, she said.
“It is also interesting to note that the riot occurred very close to a large case of land grabbing by one of the Koh Kong deputy governors who has cleared 84 [hectares] of mangrove and dense evergreen forest for his personal property,” Gauntlett wrote.
Sim Sereivuth, head of the Koh Kong Forestry Administration office, said he was unaware of dwellings having been burned down.
Mondol Seima District Governor Moeung Luonsa declined to comment and Koh Kong provincial Governor Yuth Pouthang could not be contacted.