Mixed security forces in the southern Cambodian province of Preah Sihanouk opened fire on protesters on Thursday 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.
Some 100 soldiers, police and military police arrived in Koki village in Preah Sihanouk’s Bet Trang commune, opening fire on protesters and critically injuring at least one person, 28-year-old Pov Saroth, a construction worker.
The land was awarded to nine families, but the surrounding area is claimed by politically connected tycoons, leading locals to question the true nature of the court decision.
Tensions are high in Preah Sihanouk, fueled in part by an influx of Chinese investment and imported Chinese laborers, leading to a spike in land prices.
Speaking to VOA Khmer from his hospital bed in Phnom Penh this week, Saroth’s mother said her son was a bystander to the clashes and was driving his motorbike through the area when he was hit by a bullet in his shoulder.
On Ian said Saroth had arrived in Preah Sihanouk to work construction. “He is awake. He can eat a bit, but he can’t move his legs,” she said.
“He was just passing by on his motorbike to buy lunch,” said Lim Pheng, 39, the wife of Saroth’s boss, who has been tending to the injured laborer at the hospital.
Saroth is from a poor family from Battambang province and previously migrated to Thailand for a fruit-picking job. All four of her children are construction workers. She rents a house for $5 per month and cares for her grandchildren while their parents are away working.
Ian said she will not file a complaint about the shooting, but asked authorities to help with medical bills.
The family has spent $1,000 for treatment so far, with funds provided by well-wishers. Remaining in the hospital is costing them $30 per day.
Saroth was left bleeding on the ground for some time before being taken to Preah Sihanouk Provincial Referral Hospital. The severity of the gunshot wound led doctors there to transfer him to Phnom Penh, where he was placed in an intensive care unit awaiting surgery, according to local rights group Licadho.
Four people were arrested and released after they agreed to end protests.
Excessive Use of Force
According to Licadho, the protests were sparked by a Supreme Court decision on 21 November 2017 that awarded 71 hectares of disputed land to nine families, represented by plaintiffs Chay Narin and Kong Vanna.
“When the heavily armed security forces tried to enter the site in Bet Trang commune, protesters, some holding sticks, burned tires and threw rocks to prevent them. Security forces - including soldiers from Preah Sihanouk provincial sub-operational zone then withdrew, regrouped, and re-entered the village,” Licadho said in a statement.
“This time they fired dozens of shots of live ammunition into the air as well as into the crowd in what was a clearly excessive use of force,” Licadho added.
Huot Vichet, a spokesman of Preah Sihanouk provincial court, said armed forces only fired in the air. He could not explain why Saroth was injured.
“The firing was in the air. I didn’t know about his case because it was more than 100 protesters. It is just [unconfirmed reports] and I don’t know unless I meet him, interview him, or listening to his answers, so I can hypothesize that he was not involved in the case,” he said.
“They first threw gasoline bottles, used slingshots with metal balls, threw stones towards armed forces, twice,” he said. “If [he] had no intention [to get involved], why did he drive through there?” the spokesman asked.
But Phay Bun Vannak, deputy governor of Preah Sihanouk province, who lead the forces to evict people, said there were more than 300 mixed security forces involved in the crackdown.
“Before the operation, we met and we agreed to keep it non-violent,” he said. “But people blocked the road, threw gasoline bottles, used slingshots and threw stones,” he said, adding that seven police were injured and police vehicles were damaged.
“The shots accidentally injured a man,” he said, claiming that Saroth was involved in the violence.
The families, however, said it was “a lie.”
According to video and photos shared on social media, one arrested man was kicked repeatedly on his back while handcuffed and held faced down on the ground.
Mean Phorng, one of those at the center of the land dispute that is attributed with catalyzing the violence, said in 2017 he bought a small plot of land in the area, adding that formal land titles were not often issued.
“Now my stone house and crops are destroyed,” he said after the armed forces carried out the raid on Thursday.
“I want to buy a few tents and then prepare shelter and stay there,” he said.
“I don’t know what to do and where to go,” he added. “If they come again, I can’t resist.”
“I don’t know the original owner of the land.”
Sreng Vanly, a coordinator for Licadho in Preah Sihanouk, said it was a “complicated issue” that was compounded by the presence of powerful tycoons and an informal land titling process.
Land disputes have been one of the most contentious social problems in Cambodia over the past two decades. Widespread dispossession has made a serious dent in support for Hun Sen’s government, which became known in the mid-2000s for its policy of generating income by awarding large tracts of land to wealthy and well-connected investors.
Land dispute evictions can be brutal. 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.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with Licadho, said the courts should open an investigation to discover who fired on protesters on Thursday.
“There should be a transparent and independent investigation that holds the shooter who injured a villager responsible,” he said.
“If it affects people’s body or lives, authorities should retreat and find other ways later,” he added.