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Kandal Governor Defends Firing at Protestors, Says Injuring Farmer Was Unintentional

FILE: In this screen grab from a video shared on social media, villagers are heard shouting that military officers start shooting real bullets on protesting villagers in a land dispute in Kandal province' Ang Snoul district, June 3, 2021. (Social Media)

Kandal’s provincial governor has claimed that soldiers did not intend to hit protesting villagers a day after security forces opened fire at land protesters and hit and injured one person.

The shooting incident took place in Kandal’s Ang Snuol district, not far from Phnom Penh. Around 100 soldiers opened fire on villagers who are embroiled in a land dispute, according to local rights groups and villagers. Mom Chantha, who was injured, was hospitalized and other villagers have continued their protest against land clearings.

Kandal Governor Kong Sophoan admitted that soldiers opened fire but claimed that it was in self-defense and not intended to hit villagers. But he justified the shooting in order to prevent the protest.

“The armed soldiers fired in the air … and it hit [a villager],” he told VOA Khmer.

He accused villagers of illegally settling on the land, which he claimed belonged to the state.

“Let the court work on this,” he said. “The soldiers have their types of measures. It is not for any private benefits,” he said.

A video of the incident, posted on Facebook, shows soldiers advancing on farmers and opening fire; some soldiers can be seen shooting in the air or at the ground near the protestors. Midway through the four-minute video, there is a rapid volley of bullets, lots of shouting from villagers and a scramble to get away to safety.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring for rights group Licadho, said soldiers should not have fired at the villagers, adding that it was common for security forces to fire at protesters.

“This is a repeated issue where the perpetrators fire bullets during a land dispute injuring people, and then there is no one held responsible for that,” he said.

“There must be a transparent and fair investigation,” he added.

Yan Sok Khem, one of the land disputants, said she has owned the land since 1979 and had not been informed by authorities that the land belonged to the state.

She said villagers had seen soldiers stationed near the disputed land but were told the security forces were protecting forestland. Things got out of hand, she said, when the authorities started clearing the land with an excavator.

“First, villagers were told that soldiers came here to protect some forest nearby but then villagers were not allowed to go to their rice farms. So, it becomes tense and tense,” she told VOA Khmer on Friday.

The land conflict, according to Licadho, involves more than 150 hectares that have been farmed for many years by more than 300 local families from at least seven villages. Satellite data shows that the land around the location of the shooting has been farmed continuously since at least 2008, which is the earliest satellite imagery available on Google Earth, the rights groups said in a statement.

Kandal provincial authorities issued a statement on Thursday saying the 280 hectares of land belonged to the state and would be used as a dump site and military base. Officials were now in the process of evaluating and studying the land, and authorities would try to find a solution or compensate villagers.

Government officials often deploy heavily armed police and soldiers to force people off their land without court orders or any form of fair hearing for the owners or occupiers of the land.

In January 2019, a man was shot and critically injured by mixed security forces after more than 100 police, gendarmes, and soldiers descended on Kokir village, in Preah Sihanouk province, to enforce a Supreme Court decision awarding disputed land to nine families.

In March 2018, armed forces shot at protesters over a land dispute with a rubber plantation in Snuol district, Kratie province, and three people suffered injuries from gunfire. In 2012, a 14-year-old girl was fatally shot when soldiers opened fire in a similar land protest.

In February 2019, Interior Minister Sar Kheng warned local authorities in Cambodia not to use armed forces personnel to violently disperse protesters.

“Now we have to be clear about who is the administration and who is the law enforcement. When they use the authorities to enforce the law, in that case, police and military police are proper. But when they use the military, it is wrong. We do not use military forces to carry out court orders,” he said.