A soldier in Cambodia's army shot and killed a teenager this week while attempting to seize farmland for his military superior, rights groups said, warning that shooting deaths over land grabs are creating a climate of fear in the country.
Try Chamroeun, a 19-year-old student, was planting soybeans on Sunday along with fellow villagers on a two-hectare (half-acre) plot in Preah Vihear province, when soldier Poeun Tash demanded that he stop, claiming the land belonged to his military boss, according to London-based environmental advocacy group Global Witness.
When villagers, who had been using the land for the last three years, argued with him, Poeun Tash opened fire on the group, hitting Try Chamroeun in the arm and chest, and killing him.
The young man had been helping his family of migrant farmers with the crop during summer vacation from school.
Chan Saveth, deputy chief of local rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that shooting deaths related to land disputes have created a climate of fear in Cambodia, which is experiencing a land-grabbing crisis, and called on the government to “fully enforce the law.”
“I see that the government has [frequently] failed to protect justice, failed to protect against the threat of armed force being used against the people,” he said.
“In general, it is rare to see those behind the perpetrators brought to justice. The government must have the willingness to fully enforce the law. But most of the time, it is government officials who are behind the land disputes.”
The soldier, Poeun Tash, 30, from Unit 41 in Kulen district, has been detained and charged at a provincial court with murder and possession of a weapon without permission, the Phnom Penh Post reported, but Try Chamroeun’s father Svay Min wants a deeper probe.
Svay Min, who works as a volunteer at the Cambodian Red Cross in Siem Reap province’s Chi Kraeng district, has urged police to take action against “the one who ordered the shooting,” according to the Post.
Global Witness said that a week prior to the incident, soldiers had approached villagers in the area informing them that they could no longer farm there and ordered them to leave because the land “belonged to their superior.”
Other reports said that the value of the farmland had recently increased to around U.S. $3,000 per hectare, drawing wealthy and powerful businessmen to the area to try to remove the villagers with the threat of violence.
Climate of fear
Since 2008, more than 70 percent of the country’s arable land has been leased out to private investors, according to Global Witness.
It said that the rapid sell-off has affected more than half a million Cambodians and seen some 2,000 families affected by often violent land grabs in the first three months of 2014 alone.
“Cambodia is being sold-off to the highest bidder by the country’s political, business and military elite who seemingly have an endless appetite for personal profit,” Global Witness land campaigner Josie Cohen said in a report following the Preah Vihear incident.
“Operating behind a veil of secrecy which enables them to act with total impunity, these corrupt elites are getting rich quick from land deals. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Cambodians are pushed off their land and deeper into poverty,” she said.
“The government urgently needs to stop handing over large swathes of land to private investors and open up the whole system of land concessions so the people of Cambodia can see how their land is being used and for whose benefit.”
Cohen said it was “more vital than ever” for Cambodia’s courts and authorities to defend and protect “those brave enough to speak out” against land grabs.
Council of Ministers Secretary of State and spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the report by Global Witness, saying the organization “does not understand Khmer culture” and had incorrectly tied the shooting to Cambodia’s land dispute issue.
“Land disputes are a separate issue. We are studying the land issue as to what causes land disputes. But to assess that the cause of this violence was related to land grabbing is groundless,” he said, adding that it is “unlawful” to use weapons to wound unarmed civilians.
“Global Witness is not [staffed with] Khmer people, so it does not understand Khmer culture and the true story of the Khmer people.
What Global said shows the one angle of this organization—to lower or debase and attack the [government]. Please allow competent authorities to work to find the truth.”
This week’s shooting death marked the latest in a number of killings of Cambodians who have spoken out against the grabbing of the country’s land and forests by the elite.
Environmental activist Chut Wutty and anti-illegal logging reporter Hang Serei Oudom were both murdered in 2012, while in the same year, 14-year-old girl Heng Chantha was killed in crossfire during a land dispute.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.