Khean Narom was shot in a bloody crackdown in March last year as hundreds of villagers protested over a land dispute in Kratie province’s Snuol district.
On March 8, 2018, about 150 police, soldiers and military police opened fire on hundreds of protesters who blocked a road in the province. Houses had been torched and community members were arrested during a forced eviction from a rubber plantation earlier that day.
Narom, 42, was one of three people who was shot at on the Memot Rubber plantation’s concession in Pi Thnou commune, while others claim they were beaten.
She has since recovered from the shooting, but struggled to work for several months afterward.
“I just do light work,” she told VOA Khmer in a recent interview at her house in Kranhuong Senchey commune, a few kilometers from the land she said she had lost to the company.
Immediately after the clash, the land dispute victims, including Narom, tried to hide since they were afraid of being followed and threatened by the authorities.
Her family sought treatment at two hospitals, one in Kratie and another in Kampong Cham province, but care was not forthcoming.
Sao Hea, Narom’s husband, said his wife was injured at about 1 pm. The hospitals, he says, did not want to treat her.
“Police followed us on the road and from one hospital to another,” Hea claimed.
“We finally sent my wife to [Calmette] hospital the next day at about 3 pm and at about 4 pm she got operated on,” he said.
Living in Snuol district’s Chrus Chrov village, Narom said that the injuries meant she was unable to work for about seven months and she spent about $10,000 for the treatment.
Her relatives lent her money for the operation.
Two years ago, she took out a $25,000 loan from a bank to invest in her farm during the dispute with the company.
The money she had left she used to pay her relatives back, but she now has three years to pay back the bank loan.
In June, the first installment of $6,000 is due.
“I will sell my son’s land to pay the debt first,” said Narom, adding that she must pay at least $300 per month in interest.
Narom said she, her two sons, and daughter now work as day laborers in the pepper farms owned by local villagers. In total, they earn about $25 per day.
The money all goes towards the bank loan. Her five children cannot attend school due to the debt.
Seng In, 33, another land dispute victim, said he was shot in his right thigh.
“I am fine now,” he said, adding that he works in construction, earning about $6 per day.
“I am still waiting to see if they give my land back,” he said. “Authorities never came to ask me about it.”
“I can’t sue because I don’t have money,” he adds. “I have regrets and I also feel pity for those villagers who were shot. A lot of bullets were fired.”
He admitted that when the villagers protested they carried weapons.
“Yes, we had sticks and knives but just for protection. We didn’t expect any bullets,” he said.
Tiv Vuthen, a spokesman of Kratie provincial court, said the case has been investigated.
“I know there is a case like this,” he said. “But I don’t remember well.”
“When there is the case involving deaths or injuries, the court will investigate what happened and those involved,” he added.
“Perhaps it is still going on.”
Clearing the Land
Narom’s husband Hea said he and his wife moved from their homeland to the neighboring province of Tbong Khmum ten years ago to find work and to buy land. In their hometown, they had sold clams and snails in the village, earning about $10 per day.
“[We] just followed others after hearing they could cut the forests,” said Hea. “Seeing more and more people cut the forest, so I cleared the land there,” he added.
Hea said he first bought about 20 hectares of disputed land but was not granted a land title.
He spent four years logging and then grew some cassava, bananas and jack fruit. He built a house, but it was later set on fire.
More than a dozen villagers in Hea’s home village of Lngeang in Tbong Khmum recalled rumors spreading in the area some years ago about the money that could be made from logging in Snuol.
None had any legal documents to back up their claims to the land.
Hem Sophea, 27, said three years ago she and her husband went to clear forests in Kratie province and squatted on four hectares of land. She grew cassava but has since lost control of the land.
“I just followed others. They said we could clear forests for land,” she said.
Sophea borrowed $3,000 from the bank to invest in equipment to clear the forest.
She added that her husband was beaten by the security forces during the protest last year and her house was set on fire.
Lngeang village chief, Nhem Meuk, said his four children had logged Snuol but the land had since been taken back by the Memot Rubber firm.
“They saw others going to clear the forests and then they just followed,” he said.
The Memot Rubber Plantation Company had a 9,855-hectare economic land concession in Snuol, but almost a third of that land was granted to land claimants in 2008.
“The company has never violated or affected people’s land. On the contrary, [the company] has been affected by an anarchical group who are cultivating forests for land subsequently,” a company statement read at the time.
In a separate incident in late January, mixed security forces in the southern Cambodian province of Preah Sihanouk opened fire on protesters after they burned tires, threw makeshift Molotov cocktails and blocked roads, sparked by a Supreme Court decision to award a land title to several local families.
Pov Saroth, a construction worker and bystander, was critically injured in the assault. In 2012, a 14-year-old girl was fatally shot when soldiers opened fire in a similar land protest.
Am Sam Ath, a chief technical investigator for Licadho, said victims are often afraid to file complaints, but the cases must nevertheless be investigated by the courts.
“The victims dare not to file complaints,” he said. “They [the courts] should not wait only for the victims to file complaints; they should investigate when they are made aware of the news or are told about the case,” he added.
“There is no justice or investigation for those cases.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government is committed to solving the land issue and bringing anyone responsible for crimes to justice.
“We think the same, people that [shoot protesters], it is inappropriate. That is why we punished [them],” he said, referring to the case in Preah Sihanouk province, in which two provincial officials were removed from office in February.
But in relation to the Kratie case, he said the “government doesn’t have rights to interfere in the court’s affairs,” he said.
‘Let it End’
Narom struggled to support her family on her wages from the pepper farm.
She regrets losing the money she invested in the land in Kratie province. “It is a lot of money, but as long as I have life, I still can find it,” she says.
Narom and her husband said they do not want to pursue the case in the courts.
“I don’t care about it, let it end,” she said. “It is unfortunate. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”