Villagers in Siem Reap province said Monday that they suspect foul play following the suspicious death of an outspoken neighbor on Sunday evening—a day before he was to appear in court over a long-running land dispute involving a Buddhist pagoda.
Mao Bunlaing, 46, died between 7 pm and 7:30 pm in his outhouse, about 5 meters from his home in Sala Kamroeuk commune’s Wat Bo village, in what officials describe as an accident but neighbors and relatives have linked to their land dispute with local monks.
“My father was killed. At first, I thought he died by himself. But when I looked at his leg injuries and at other parts of his body, I am almost 99 percent sure he really was killed,” said the victim’s 21-year-old son, Mao Veasna.
He said his father was scheduled to appear at Siem Reap Provincial Court Monday for questioning over allegations that he had felled two trees on property that was claimed by Wat Reachbo pagoda.
Mao Bunlaing was involved with 55 other families in their dispute with monks at the pagoda, who plan to expand their compound and are claiming ownership over eight hectares of land on which the families say they have lived since 1979.
“Police and lawyers for the monks demanded many times that my father accept money to move off the disputed land. They said otherwise, something bad would happen, but my father always rejected those requests,” Mao Veasna added.
Thoeung Chendarith, Siem Reap district police chief, dismissed the claims, saying Mao Bunlaing bled to death after slipping and being lacerated by a piece of a broken toilet. He was found with deep cuts starting at his lower back and running down his left leg, he said.
“It was not murder. The victim accidentally stepped on and broke his toilet,” he added.
Villager So Socheat, 23, who was detained by police for protesting against the monks earlier this month, also said she believed Mao Bunlaing had been murdered. “Police and the monks will not acknowledge it was murder because the officials never support the villagers who want to continue living on the land,” she said.
A second villager, who for fears for his safety would only give his family name, Chak, said he believed the death was not an accident. “Villagers were threatened,” he said.
Mao Yin, chief of Adhoc’s Siem Reap provincial office, said his staff was investigating the death.
“It is a really complex matter. Right now, there are some officials and workers who are trying to install corrugated iron to block villagers from entering their homes,” Mao Yin said.
“Those villagers are being forced to accept money as compensation to relocate,” he said.
Ou Virak, spokesman for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which is working with the villagers involved in the Siem Reap case, said violence and land disputes were a volatile mix. “It’s a dangerous trend. Even monks feel safe [grabbing land]…. I think there is going to be more violence, more problems and it could lead to social unrest,” he said.
The newly launched National Land Dispute Authority will be ineffective as long as the government fails to punish powerful people involved in grabbing land, he said. “High-ranking officials in jail at this moment would send a very strong message. The message now is that you can get away with just about anything,” he added.
A Kandal province village chief was shot dead last week over a land dispute in Sa’ang district. Two brothers allegedly shot and killed 58-year-old Kompong Trea village chief Le Sok Heng after the village chief attempted to sell a piece of land one of the brothers said he owned.
(Additional reporting by Whitney Kvasager)