O’Chrou district, Banteay Meanchey – Government officials announced they are questioning 14 provincial military police and police officers who fired their weapons Monday during the bloody eviction of 218 families from Kbal Spean village that left five villagers dead. Authorities also promised to arrest all those responsible for the deaths, even top commanders. Officials in Poipet, however, would not name those who ordered police to open fire on the villagers.
“We have already arrested 12 military policemen and two police officers,” Banteay Meanchey Deputy Governor Sok Sareth said. “They were arrested for shooting into the air but not for shooting the villagers.”
Ministry of Interior Undersecretary of State Srun Vong Vannak maintained that the eviction operation involved neither district and provincial-level leaders nor the government.
“It was done without the direction of district and provincial governors. In this case, there was no order from the government,” he said.
On Monday, more than 200 heavily armed provincial police and military police officers shot and killed five villagers during an attempt to enforce a court decision granting ownership of the six hectares of land the village was built on to village Chief Tin On.
“It was not proper conduct to shoot the villagers and now we are arresting [the officers] for punishment,” said Srun Vong Vannak, who is working for a government committee charged with investigating the incident.
None of the arrested officers have been charged yet, Srun Vong Vannak said, and he refused to say where those arrested are being detained.
“They are in a safe place,” he said, adding that Tin On was also being sought for arrest.
Banteay Meanchey Governor Heng Chantha said a report will be issued to Prime Minister Hun Sen who will decide what to do with Kbal Spean village-which lies only a few meters from an 18-hole golf course behind the Star Vegas casino.
“We are still waiting for [the] Prime Minister,” he said.
Heng Chantha maintained there was nothing he could do to stop the eviction and claimed he wasn’t told that it was taking place or that the large and heavily-armed force of police and military police had been deployed to clear the village.
“How could I know if they do not tell me?” he asked, but admitted that it was uncommon for his province’s armed forces to mobilize without his knowledge
In Sisophon, police and military police officers said their colleagues were worried about the investigation and maintained they were just carrying out orders.
“We were just implementing the law,” said one military police officer, who refused to be identified. “Some of the officers are worried. We are always blamed.”
At Kbal Spean, aid workers and Sam Rainsy Party members arrived throughout Wednesday, encouraging the villagers to take their complaints all the way to Hun Sen.
Opposition party Cabinet member Mu Sochua and lawmaker Kim Sophearith handed out rice, money and other items to families after meeting with government officials at the district office.
“It’s a scene of death,” Mu Sochua said. “It’s almost a…killing field.”
Ruling out suggestions that the killings were accidental, Mu Sochua said the opposition would launch its own investigation.
Several members of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee also visited the villagers, and a medical doctor and a lawyer from the Cambodian Defenders Project. Forty villagers were treated for minor injuries sustained during the eviction and food and other items were distributed.
“Our doctor was busy the whole day,” Licadho President Kek Galabru said.
Several villagers said they were relieved to see support from the NGOs and opposition parliamentarians.
“They advise us to stick together, file a lawsuit and file a complaint to Hun Sen,” said villager Chey Sophat. “We have the plan to do it.”
He said throughout the day several police officers visited the village and took measurements at the spots where the five men were killed, but the villagers did not know what the officers were trying to determine.
“They would not talk to us,” he said.
Villagers were also happy to hear that one man thought to be dead was actually alive and recovering at Mongkol Borei Hospital.
Sitting in a bed at the hospital, villager Sun Chev, 47, was surrounded by family as he recovered from a bullet wound to his lower back. Beside him sat fellow villager Mao Sam On, 34, who had been shot in the leg.
The two admitted they were holding crudely-fashioned weapons-a knife and a pipe-but denied attacking the armed police and military police who shot them. They said they were only trying to keep their homes from being destroyed.
They said they had moved to Kbal Spean in 1997 because they heard they could make money in Poipet after having been homeless elsewhere in the country for years.
They did not know how long they would have to remain in hospital, nor what they would do once released.
“We only have our hands,” Mao Sam On said. “It’s difficult because we don’t know where to go when our wounds have healed.”