Authorities in Cambodia’s Kratie province on Thursday opened fire on a group of people protesting over a long-running land dispute with a rubber plantation, killing as many as eight people and injuring dozens of others, according to sources.
More than 400 residents of 2 Thnou commune, in Kratie’s Snuol district, blocked National Road 76A for three hours, beginning around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, after workers from the Memot Rubber Plantation and security forces burned down the huts and razed the farms of 300 villagers locked in a dispute over ownership of the land, witness Tin Pheak told RFA’s Khmer Service.
The demolition came a day after Kratie provincial authorities met with the villagers in a bid to resolve the dispute with Memot — which leased the land around the same time residents settled in the area — but were unable to come to an agreement, she said.
Around 150 soldiers, police and military police were deployed to remove protesters from National Road 76A, Tin Pheak said, and security forces fired on residents during the ensuing confrontation.
“When authorities opened fire on the protesters, I saw two people were killed right away and another two injured,” she said.
“As of now, I know that six people were killed and 40 injured. All the six dead are men. Some of those who were killed are from nearby villages.”
Tin Pheak said that the authorities “confiscated our smart phones and destroyed them,” apparently in a bid to prevent video of the incident from being made public.
“We tried to help victims by sending them to hospitals and we are still searching for some missing people,” she said.
“I saw six dead bodies being dragged from a creek inside a forest ... So far two bodies have been claimed by relatives, but the other four bodies have not been taken from the forest yet.”
An official with a local civil society organization, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, also confirmed that six people had been killed and “several others injured.”
Tin Pheak stressed that the clash occurred after “the company sent authorities to demolish and burn down our houses.”
“We residents asked them to stop the demolition, but they didn’t listen to us,” she said, adding that the villagers were unarmed and only resorted to throwing sticks and stones at authorities after they opened fire.
“Had they not opened fire on us first, we would not have thrown anything at them. The authorities were all well armed.”
Authorities later confiscated our smart phones and destroyed them as they were afraid that we used them to record the incident.”
The Phnom Penh Post also quoted Tin Pheak as saying that she had seen a woman and man shot dead by the authorities, and had helped move the bodies away from the road. After returning from calling for help, “the police already put [a] body in a car,” she added.
Tin Pheak said that she had also been hit in the face by a police official’s gun.
The Post quoted another villager at the clash, who requested anonymity, who said he saw a man fall over after being shot in the chest.
Death toll rises
Later on Thursday, witnesses told RFA they had discovered two more bodies, bringing the total of number dead to eight.
One of the sources, who declined to provide her name, said that the eight dead included one woman, and echoed Tin Pheak’s claims that around 40 people were injured, adding that a number of villagers remain missing.
She said Kratie provincial authorities ordered security forces to fire on the protesters, adding that two people were killed on the spot, and that many of those injured suffered bullet wounds to the arms and legs.
“The authorities warned me [not to talk to media], but I will speak, because even if I die, it will be worth it, as long as all the residents can get their land back and not have their homes burned down,” she said.
“I feel so sorry for them, since some of them have many kids. Myself as well — I have five children. If they shoot and kill me, that’s fine, but I just want to make sure that I can get the land back for my children.”
Another resident who asked to remain unnamed told RFA that the incident had led to “pure chaos.”
“Now it happens that some people are missing and we are still searching for them,” she said, adding “I don’t know how many people were arrested.”
A video of the confrontation, circulating on Facebook, shows villagers with sticks and machetes arguing with authorities, including soldiers carrying rifles. In a later segment, dozens of shots can be heard as the villagers run away, and a separate video purportedly shows a man shot in the thigh receiving medical treatment from fellow protesters.
In the hours following the confrontation, authorities offered a significantly different account of what happened in 2 Thnou commune, with Major General Nay Toeung Loeung, the deputy commander of Region 2 and commander of Kratie sub-military operations, telling government-aligned Fresh News Media that “reports by The Phnom Penh Post and Radio Free Asia are totally incorrect.”
“There was no death toll and only two people were injured—one in his buttock and another one in his thigh—and they were sent to the hospital right away.”
Fresh News also quoted Kratie provincial governor Sar Chamrong dismissing reports that residents were killed and that several others had been injured by police firing on protesters. He said a man and a woman had suffered minor injuries, while another villager was arrested for sparking the confrontation, in which protesters wielded “homemade guns.”
The Kratie provincial government also released a press statement denying the claims and calling earlier reports “fake news.”
Provincial authorities “conducted a security and safety exercise … surrounding company land so as to prevent encroachment from a group of people,” the statement said, adding that a confrontation occurred after “residents gathered and blocked the National Road 76, whereby a provincial working group tried to compromise for reopening the road, but was rejected by protesters.”
“Protesters then employed violence against our working group by throwing knives, axes, stones, missiles from rubber slingshots, arrows, and Molotov cocktails, causing injuries to seven members of our provincial working group,” it said.
“As a result, our working group decided to fire into the air, so as to protect our members and protect the safety of the whole working group. No one was killed during the clash, although nine people were injured—seven of whom are authorities.”
The Phnom Penh Post quoted rights group Adhoc coordinator Be Vanny, who it said initially reported the shooting deaths, as saying he was simply passing on information he had received, and that he was “wanted” by police.
The Post cited Soueng Sen Karuna, land rights coordinator at Adhoc, as saying that he had been contacted by a Kratie Provincial Court official demanding his group retract its statement and that “if not, you’ll have a problem.”
A doctor at the district referral hospital and the director of the provincial hospital declined to provide details when asked by the paper about the incident.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.