Authorities spray tear gas in northern Cambodia land dispute protest

Angry residents have refused to leave their homes to make way for a rubber plantation in Preah Vihear province.
By RFA Khmer
2024.03.06
Authorities spray tear gas in northern Cambodia land dispute protest A cloud of tear gas erupts along a dirt road as police try to disperse a crowd attempting to save their homes in Kulean district in Cambodia’s northern Preah Vihear province on March 6, 2024.
(Image from citizen journalist video)

Helmet-wearing police officers in Cambodia’s northern Preah Vihear province used tear gas and fired their guns in the air to disperse about 130 people who tried to stop the destruction of homes on Wednesday amid a land dispute with a large land concession company.

More than 100 officers from provincial police, the military and other security forces traveled to several villages in Kuleaen district to evict residents and burn down homes that Seila Damex Co. Ltd. has said are located on concession land, according to Nai Thuon, a representative for the villagers,

Video footage showed a line of angry residents yelling at officers and concession workers standing near several tractors along a dirt road. Photos showed the charred remains of at least one home.

Officers wielded shields, fired their guns into the air and sprayed tear gas, Nai Thuon said. Some 20 villagers were arrested and taken to an undisclosed location, she said.

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The remains of a burned home are seen in Kulean district in Cambodia’s northern Preah Vihear province on March 6, 2024. (Citizen journalist)

Phnom Penh-based Seila Damex has government-approved plans to develop the area into a rubber plantation. The land dispute affects some 300 families. 

“The villagers are facing hardship,” Nai Thuon said. “I have asked the government to allot some land [from the development] for the villagers.” 

‘I was relying on the law’

Authorities warned the villagers last month that they would destroy their homes if they didn’t leave to make way for Seila Damex. Radio Free Asia was unable to reach Preah Vihear provincial police Chief Suos Sok for comment on Wednesday. 

“It is very unjust for us. I have nothing to rely on,” said Nhim Sreyneang, another representative for villagers. “I was relying on the law, but we were turned away by those who we are supposed to depend on.” 

She added that Seila Damex company has filed for bankruptcy and hasn’t planted crops on land they control for several months – and yet the government is still sending security forces to the area to assist the company.

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Police stand together with shields and helmets in Kulean district in Cambodia’s northern Preah Vihear province on March 6, 2024. (Citizen journalist)

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.

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.

Wednesday’s clash in Kuleaen district is the first violent crackdown of 2024 over a land dispute, Am Sam Ath of human rights group Licadho said. He urged authorities to resolve the dispute peacefully and  to avoid violence or imprison people.

“We can’t avoid disputes but we need to avoid violence and resort to peaceful means,” he said.

The National Power Party, an opposition party that was formed late last year, also urged authorities to facilitate a solution, saying in a statement that the land dispute should be settled “peacefully by considering people’s benefit as a priority to promote their livelihoods and harmony.” 

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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