Six villagers were arrested and one was left critically injured Thursday after authorities fired on a protest against the forcible eviction of residents from land in southwest Cambodia’s Sihanoukville province, in the country’s first violent police crackdown since a July election widely seen as unfree and unfair.
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.
One villager, who spoke with RFA’s Khmer Service on condition of anonymity, said police beat residents who gathered early on Thursday morning and erected barricades of burning tires to ward off any attempt to remove them from the land, in protest of the court decision.
She said that after police advanced, they began firing their weapons, and while some villagers tried to fight them off, most eventually fled in fear.
At the end of the clash, six people had been arrested and at least one person was critically injured from a bullet wound to the chest.
“I was at the scene and the shooting was very vicious,” she added.
Another villager named Lim Sareth told RFA she had lived on the land “for many years,” and that villagers clashed with police because they were terrified of losing their property and being left with nowhere to go.
“After the crackdown, the police destroyed our houses and plantations,” she said.
Cheap Sotheary, the Sihanoukville provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that she was also present during the crackdown, and said villagers “responded to police force with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and burning car tires.”
After police unsuccessfully attempted to evict the villagers twice, they “began to open fire” around 10:00 a.m. and arrested the six people, she said, adding that “at least two villagers were injured” during the clash—one “seriously.”
“It was like a war zone,” she said. “The police fired many bullets.”
Cheap Sotheary said that villagers were left with “bruises all over their bodies” after being beaten by authorities.
Residents of the site said they had occupied the site since 2002, with several having bought land from other villagers, and were surprised to suddenly learn that it belonged to the businessman.
Attempts by RFA to reach Sihanoukville provincial spokesman Ou Saroeun for comment went unanswered Thursday.
Disputes on the rise
The police crackdown came a day after a court in the seat of Sihanoukville province charged Chhay Roth, an official from the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and Tep Sopha, a Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union volunteer, with “incitement” and “assault of an officer” for their part in a protest over a separate land dispute in Prey Nob district on Jan. 22.
Adhoc spokesman Soeng San Karuna told RFA Thursday that police should reinvestigate their case.
“We don’t want to see police implement the law based on political affiliation,” he said, suggesting authorities are “biased against the CNRP,” which was banned by the Supreme Court in November 2017 over an alleged plot to topple the government, paving the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats on offer in parliamentary elections in July 2018.
Am Sam Ath, the senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, told RFA that “land disputes are on the rise” in Sihanoukville and across the country, as the price of property has increased since last year’s ballot.
He said Hun Sen’s government has failed to provide enough social land concessions to villagers who are in need of it.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where 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.
The country’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.
In September, more than 400 villagers from 13 communities in Sihanoukville province staged a protest demanding that a local court drop charges against four locals detained by authorities for “violently occupying” disputed property.
The four had tried to reclaim land seized by several wealthy individuals more than a decade earlier because property prices are increasing in and around the resort city of Sihanoukville, where Chinese investors are buying up plots to build casinos.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.