Cambodia’s Interior Minister Slams Provincial Authorities for Misuse of Military in Land Disputes

cambodia-sihanoukville-land-protest-jan-2019-crop.jpg A police officer handcuffs four of the six villagers arrested following a crackdown on a land protest in Sihanoukville province's Prey Nob district, Jan. 24, 2019.
Photo courtesy of Adhoc

Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng has condemned authorities in Sihanoukville and Kratie provinces for using military force to enforce orders of the court in recent land dispute cases.

Speaking of two specific cases where the military was called in to forcibly remove villagers for land development, the minister acknowledged Wednesday that court orders need to be enforced, but said that military involvement was excessive.

“As provincial authorities, we can use the police and the military police, but using the military is wrong,” said Sar Kheng.

“We can’t use military force to execute the court’s orders. It is wrong,” he said, adding, “[If we do that] it means that we don’t know the laws.”

“Please be careful not to repeat the same mistake in other provinces,” he urged.

“Only police, military police, and prosecutors can [enforce] court decisions,” said Sar Kheng.

Last month six villagers were arrested and one was left critically injured after authorities fired on a protest against the forcible eviction of residents from land in southwest Cambodia’s Sihanoukville province. Villagers clashed with police armed with assault rifles and shields who tried to evict them using tactics they described as “brutal and unacceptable,” following a Supreme Court decision to grant their land in Sihanoukville’s Prey Nob district as a concession to a wealthy businessman.

Speaking specifically of the incident in Sihanoukville, the minister said, “It was not necessary, to use [that kind] of force.”

“If we [use military force in this way], then we breach laws and we will be in trouble,” he said.

He warned that resorting to violence would hurt the reputation of the government and suggested that in cases where there is a problem or reaction against court decisions, the authorities should consider alternative ways to resolve the issue.

“But we didn’t do that. We violently enforced it,” he said.

“In this situation you can’t do that. Please be prudent,” he said, adding, “I don’t blame you but [I speak] as a person who [wants to] help straighten your direction.”

The minister then spoke of two cases in which he asked provincial authorities to use nonviolent measures to settle land disputes with villagers, saying both issues had been successfully resolved.

“I asked them to negotiate. Even though we are ruling party. But we can’t rely on weapons,” he said.

“We must seek [peaceful] resolutions. We must respect the law,” said the minister, adding, “We must prove [to] people that [the government is a] public administration.”

“We must protect the people who are in the right, but we can’t just shoot people [in the wrong],” he said.

Am Sam Ath, a senior officer for the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) told RFA’s Khmer Service that he welcomed Sar Kheng’s comment.

He said that the military isn’t trained to engage the public like police because their primary purpose is to defend the country.

Am Sam Ath continued to urge authorities to investigate into military police officers who allegedly shot and injured a villager, during a violent forced eviction Jan 24 in Sihaoukville.

“We must find the suspects and bring them to justice. We need to end the culture of impunity,” he said.

Sihanoukville’s provincial deputy governor told reporters during a press conference last week that authorities did not shoot the villager.

The deputy governor said that the villager got hurt from a bullet that was shot into the air, but hit him as it fell.

Besides injuring that villager, a military police officer also allegedly used his weapon to hit a villager while another officer allegedly kicked a villager who was handcuffed.

The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.

Rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.

Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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