Nearly 200 villagers in a land dispute violently clashed with police yesterday in Kratie province, with authorities opening fire, leading to conflicting reports that one protester had died while others were injured.
The confrontation began when about 100 officials, including district officials, a court prosecutor and representatives from the Memot Rubber Plantation Company attempted to remove 10 huts being built by the villagers allegedly on the company’s land in Snuol district.
The villagers attempted to block the officials, company reps and accompanying soldiers and police from destroying their huts and measuring company land boundaries.
As fighting broke out, villagers fought armed authorities with sticks, machetes and slingshots, leading to differing reports of injuries and deaths when soldiers responded with live fire.
Kong Kimny, Snuol district governor, said yesterday that about 200 villagers gathered and protested, blocking National Road 76A when about 100 mixed forces attempted to measure and build boundaries of the company’s land to prevent land encroachment.
“They used slingshots and homemade rifles to attack our authorities, leaving seven of our forces injured on their heads and bodies,” Mr Kimny said. “Then, our authority also shot their guns into the air to scare them away several times.”
“Two villagers got injured,” he added. “One was injured on the thigh and the other was injured on the buttocks and they were sent to the district referral hospital. Our injured forces were also sent there.”
The villagers also hurled rocks and attacked an excavator belonging to the company while it was being driven to help measure the land, Mr Kimny said.
Mr Kimny said most of the villagers armed with wood sticks, machete, slingshots, and homemade rifles were trying to prevent officials from measuring the land.
“Most of the villagers were very drunk and it was very hard for us to deal with them,” he said. “But no one died.”
However, Mr Kimny’s report of only two injuries to villagers and no deaths was disputed by a commune official.
Poeng Vin, Pi Thnou commune chief in Snuol district, said that one of the injured villagers later died at the district referral hospital.
“I saw one woman die at the hospital with my own eyes,” he claimed. A woman, he alleged, died at the district referral hospital. She was injured on her waist.
Mr Vin corroborated Mr Kimny’s report that several officers were also injured when attacked by the villagers.
Mr Vin said that the authorities have negotiated with the villagers several times, asking them to vacate the land as it belonged to the Memot rubber plantation.
The company was granted about 9,000 hectares of land as an economic land concession in Pi Tnou commune. About 233 families have been in a land dispute with the company since 2013.
The rubber plantation is owned by Pho Phalkun, who could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Mr Kimny said the villagers had come from many districts to encroach upon the land granted to the company and also noted that authorities have been trying to get them to leave for a few years.
Mr Kimny said authorities have asked the villagers to provide documents from their homelands proving that they are landless so that the government can provide them a social land concession, but they have not cooperated.
Sar Chamrong, Kratie provincial governor, said yesterday that police arrested about seven villagers who were involved in the clash.
“Police have arrested six to seven people for questioning,” Mr Chamrong said, adding that the police fired shots into the air to disperse the villagers from blocking National Road 76A.
“Villagers were carrying machetes, slingshots, homemade rifles and stones to attack police forces and then our forces fired shots in the air to break them up,” Mr Chamrong said.
Loek Siphat, a 33-year-old villager who witnessed the clash, said he believed two villagers may have lost their lives.
“About 300 soldiers, military police and police opend fire at the villagers, injuring three and killing two,” said Mr Siphat.
General Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, said according to a report he received from provincial police, no one had died.
“According to a report I have received, no villagers died,” he said.
Be Vanny, provincial investigator for rights group Adhoc, said violence should not have been resorted to resolve the conflict.