Updated at 10:35 a.m. EST on 2012-08-21
Security forces in eastern Cambodia fatally shot a teenage girl Wednesday during a clash over land rights with villagers armed with axes and crossbows, rights groups and officials said, highlighting a spate of shootings by authorities on protesters and activists in the country.
The victim, 15-year-old Heng Chentha, was wounded after at least 400 military personnel carrying guns moved to disperse some 200 armed villagers from an area of land marked for development. She later died from her injury in a nearby hospital.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior blamed the leader of a Cambodia-based land rights organization and four others for leading the villagers in the clash, which occurred in Kratie province’s Chhlong district.
Authorities said that military police and soldiers moved into the area after community leaders had rejected demands to vacate farmland in Kampong Domrey commune’s Broma village for several months.
They said that the government owns the land, but activists contend that it had already been awarded as a concession to Russian firm Casotim, which plans to set up a rubber plantation.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had issued a decree earlier this month, temporarily suspending new land concessions and ordering a review of existing ones.
Accused protest organizer Bun Ratha said some 500 villagers had been farming the land for years and had nowhere to go.
It was not clear who started the clash, with authorities saying the joint military force was defending itself from the armed villagers and rights groups accusing authorities of opening fire on the villagers as they were being evicted.
Agence France Presse quoted acting Kratie governor Sar Chamrong as saying that Heng Chentha was accidentally shot during the melee.
"The authorities fired shots and a bullet ricocheted and killed a 15-year-old girl," he said.
According to a local police official, two residents of Broma village were arrested at the scene and two others involved in the protest were later arrested.
The shooting came despite an order by Cambodia’s deputy prime minister in February preventing police officers from using weapons in response to protests.
Cambodia Center for Human Rights director Ou Virak condemned the killing, saying Hun Sen’s decree had not gone far enough in dealing with the country’s growing land dispute problem.
“It is all very well cancelling any future land concessions, but if the existing ones are leading to violent and miserable deaths, either through gross negligence or bungling brutality by the authorities, then such actions are clearly not enough,” he said.
“That an innocent girl should be murdered in this way—while not surprising given recent events—is profoundly shocking and shows that the land crisis is spiraling out of control.”
Authorities have used guns to control dissent in at least four recent incidents in Cambodia, sometimes with disastrous results.
Last month, one of Cambodia’s most prominent environmental activists was gunned down by security personnel while investigating illegal logging activities in southwestern Prey Lang forest.
And in February, a former governor was charged with “unintentional injury” to three female factory workers after being the lone suspect in a shooting incident at a labor strike in Svay Rieng province.
‘Group of anarchists’
Cambodia’s Ministry of the Interior said in a statement that Wednesday’s action was not a forced eviction, but rather to shut down a “self-governing zone created by squatters.”
The ministry referred to the villagers as a “group of anarchists” led by Bun Ratha, who the statement accused of sparking a “rebellion against the government.”
“[Bun Ratha] is acting as if he is an authority figure, giving land away to the villagers,” the statement read. “He has led many demonstrations disturbing the public order.”
According to the Ministry of Interior, Bun Ratha “forced” the villagers to create the autonomous “squatter zone.”
“All actions led by the ringleader were in opposition to the elected government and [the group] had been working to build a self-governing zone,” the statement read.
“Their actions forced the government to take necessary actions, according to the law, to control the state administration,” it said.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak expressed sadness over the incident, but said the government crackdown was aimed at stopping Bun Ratha’s group.
“Our joint forces cracked down on the group because they had breached the law,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak said that the authorities were still searching for Bun Ratha and his accomplices who had fled from the scene of the clash. It was unclear if his four associates were amongst those captured by police.
Cambodia has come under pressure from the United Nations and rights groups over the increasing number of violent confrontations between security forces armed with guns and activists—many of whom protesting land grabs.
Last week, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Surya Prasad Subedi, visited Cambodia on a fact-finding mission on land disputes, expressing concern over the use of live ammunition against rights activists, which he called “a worrying trend, to say the least.”
Subedi, who is due to make a formal report on land issues later this year to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said in his initial findings that on the mission he had encountered issues of misconduct by concession companies or their subcontractors in many communities.
The issues ranged from land grabs, confiscation of livestock, the destruction of homes and property, damage to burial grounds, and physical aggression and armed intimidation, he said.
He added that in some cases, state agents such as provincial officers, forestry officials, and even police military units are involved in protecting companies and their concessions.
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country. This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
Reported by Samean Yun, Zakariya Tin and Uon Chhin for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story stated that Bun Ratha was director of the Democrat Association. Bun Ratha is not a member of the association.