The United Nations and a rights group on Friday called for an investigation into the shooting of land rights protesters in Cambodia’s Kratie province the previous day, as a key witness recanted her account of six dead after being arrested.
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.
In response to the incident, the office of United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, who happens to be visiting Cambodia, issued a statement voicing concern.
“The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Professor Rhona Smith, is deeply concerned by reports of shootings yesterday in Kratie province over a land dispute,” it said.
“She is following the situation closely and calls for a prompt investigation. Again, she highlights that respect for human rights is indispensable for peace, stability and sustainable development,” said the statement.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia director Brad Adams told RFA’s Khmer Service “the most important thing is for there to be an independent investigation.”
“With U.N. Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith in the country, I would call on her to ask the U.N. human rights office in the country to carry out an immediate investigation,” said Adams.
“We have no history of independent investigations by the Cambodian authorities, so it has to be done by the United Nations. There is no other way we can even hope to learn what the actual facts are,” he added.
On Thursday, witness Tin Pheak told RFA that 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., 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.
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,” said Tin Pheak.
On Friday, however, Tin Pheak was in custody and told Fresh News, a mouthpiece of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, “I have made a mistake. I admit it … Please forgive me.”
“When I was interviewed by RFA I was still in hiding. I was very scared and too overwhelmed with the violence, so I said things unwisely,” she told Fresh News.
“I actually saw a woman and a man who got injured. However, there rest of the casualties I told RFA and other media about were merely based on what I heard from other people.”
Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Post reported that villagers continued to flee the disputed land in 2 Thnou commune Friday, quoting around 30 residents carrying their few possessions out of the area as saying security personnel used excavators to flatten their homes and poured gasoline on the structures to burn them. Authorities told them they would be killed if they refused to leave, they added.
An NGO worker, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said he had only been able to confirm that a man and woman were injured in the clash and were currently being treated at hospitals in Kratie and the capital Phnom Penh.
He said eight villagers had been arrested in the aftermath of the incident and were being held at the Kratie provincial police station.
Other details of the shooting incident remained murky on Friday, with members of the media denied access to the site of the clash, and information largely being reported by Fresh News.
RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid a government crackdown on the media, and two former RFA Khmer Service reporters were taken into custody on Nov. 14. They were formally charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” and face a possible jail term of up to 15 years if convicted.
Amid ongoing questions over Thursday’s shooting, Mu Sochua, the deputy president of the now-defunct opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who is now living in self-imposed exile, condemned what she called the “brutality of Cambodian authorities,” demanding an “immediate and independent investigation” of the incident.
“Villagers who were detained should be released immediately and protection should be provided to witnesses in order to ensure a fair examination of the situation,” said the former member of parliament, whose party was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November for what it said was the CNRP’s involvement in plotting a “coup” against the government.
“This attack further erodes the deteriorating rule of law in Cambodia and prohibits Cambodians from living peacefully on their land as they have for years before authorities unjustly rip it out from under them, uprooting and displacing them,” she said.
“Authorities must return the land to the villagers and end this culture of impunity.”
HRW’s Adams also questioned why security forces were deployed to National Road 76A on Thursday, noting that “the army should not normally be involved” in land disputes.
“Why couldn’t the authorities simply allow the villagers to continue protesting,” he asked.
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.
In 2012, hundreds of armed police violently evicted residents of Kratie’s Pro Ma village involved in a long-running land dispute with Russian rubber company Casotim. During the clash, authorities fired on the villagers, killing a 14-year-old girl.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Paul Eckert.