18 January shooting – Prime Minister’s interventions bringing changes?

This is to document events related to the shooting of villagers on 18 January 2012 who saw their land getting lost – until finally the Prime Minister intervened on 31 January 2012, ordering decisive action to be taken. But new reports on 2 February 2012 do not show that the atmosphere has changed.

Land disputes happened in increasing numbers since many months. Some cases of violent evictions had received also wide international attention – like the destruction of the settlement in Dey Krahom – the continuing conflicts around the Boeng Kak lake (the lake has by now completely disappeared, it has been filled with sand) – and the struggle of a final group of residents evicted from the Borei Keila area.

A security guard hired by TTY points an assault rifle at villagers during a protest in Kratie province earlier this month when four villagers were shot (Phnom Penh Post)

Now is was reported that four protesters had been shot, and at least one is in a serious condition in a hospital in Vietnam. The Cambodia Daily reported on 20 January 2012 also about a general climate of increasing tensions:

Courts Step Up Charges In Land Disputes

The number of criminal charges meted out to villagers embroiled in land disputes rose by more than 50% in 2011, compared to the previous year, according to figures released by the rights group ADHOC yesterday.

The rights group found that the courts charged 475 villagers embroiled in 220 land disputes last year, compared to 306 charges laid in 2010. The number of people that fled their homes for fear of arrest also rose to 335 people, and 88% rise compared to 2010. Out of all those who were charged last year, 133 were arrested, 56 were detained, and 84 were released.

“The majority of innocent people were charged, arrested and detained by the courts in order to force them to thumbprint documents that gave their land to private companies or powerful people,” said Ouch Leng, a land rights officer for ADHOC, who compiled the figures.

The Cambodia Daily had reported on 20 January 2012:

The government yesterday ordered the arrest of uniformed guards who shot at the group of villagers, injuring at least four, after a land dispute had turned violent Wednesday…

The gun man – identified as Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers by one government official – opened fire after about 300 villagers approached workers of TTY Co. LTD to demand that they stop clearing a stretch of land along the road in Snuol district, where villagers were drying their cassava harvest.

One could have expected that order by the government would initiate a process towards punishment for the perpetrators and justice for the victims. In its edition one day later, The Cambodia Daily reported however, that the director of the TTY company, Mr. Na Marady, declared that he would not implement an agreement made between the provincial authorities and the affected villagers, allowing them to keep their land and their houses, and those injured during the shooting would be compensated, and their medical bills would be paid. He also denied that the gunmen were his guards.

Snuol district, Kratie province: On 18 January 2012, military personnel acting as security guards for TTY Co. Ltd opened fire on a group of villagers who had gathered to prevent clearing of their farmland by company's excavators:

There were new changes, according to The Cambodia Daily of 24 January 2012: Mr. Na Marady agreed to give back some land, as he had received an order by the government. But he gave a report about the shooting which is not substantiated by a video which was taken by a mobile phone:

The guards just fired on the ground and the bullets accident ricocheted. If they shoot at villagers intentionally… many people would be dead now,” said Mr. Marady, who declined to comment on the gunmen’s identities.

Though the authorities promised almost immediately last week to arrest the guards who had shot the four protesters, police have yet to even identify the shooters – pictures of whom have circulated widely in the media – let alone make a single arrest.

Prime Minister Hun Sen used the opportunity of a road construction ceremony in Mondolkiri on 31 January 2012 to address the shooting; according to The Cambodia Daily, he said:

Prime Minister Hun Sen… called on the director of the TTY rubber company to help find the company’s guards, who are still at large…

Mr. Hun Sen also warned other land development companies to refrain from using violence in land disputes with local communities, or they will risk losing their economic land concessions…

“I have ordered [officials] to take strict measures in this case. The perpetrators have to come out to confess and we have to investigate how the company got the guns.”

The Prime Minister then turned to TTY Director-General Na Marady, who was in the crowd of assembled officials, and warned him to cooperate better with authorities to help find the guards who opened fire… Adding that company management would otherwise be held responsible for the incident.

“Oknha Na Marady, you would know the perpetrators clearly; please identify the shooters. If not, you would face questioning.”

“Anywhere there are problems with villagers, the company has to stop [land clearing] immediately. If not, the company has to be responsible, I would like to condemn this action, and I will take the land concessions from any company that causes violence to villagers.”

After these stern warnings against land development companies that use violence in land disputes with local communities, a victimized villager expressed hope: “We will get land soon because the believe in Samech Hun Sen’s recommendation.” And human rights organizations’ staff expressed similar confidence: “The Prime Minister has previously already said that government armed forces cannot be hired to protect companies.”

New reports in The Cambodia Daily on 2 February 2012 destroyed these hopes.

Municipal security guards force a woman into a police van on 1 February 2012 (Cambodia Daily)

One day after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned against the use of violence in land disputes, six female protesters from the Borei Keila and Boeng Kak communities were violently packed into a police van yesterday after municipal authorities blocked them from marching on Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard.

The protest, which started peacefully, escalated at around 11 a.m. when about 100 residents from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community, who were violently evicted from their homes last month, gathered with about 50 residents from the Boeng Kak lake area at City Hall to demand that authorities address their ongoing land dispute grievances.

More than 100 riot police who had created a barricade with their shields prevented the protesters, who have now been demonstrating for weeks, from walking along Monivong Boulevard, resulting in the outbreak of violence…

The police and security guards eventually threw five female protesters from the Borei Keila community and one from Boeng Kak lake into a parked police van.

“They grabbed me like a pig or an animal and threw me inside the prison van, and my head hit the car wall,” said Ath Samnang, 28, a Borei Keila resident, who spoke yesterday afternoon from inside the municipal police station where she was detained.

The family and friends of the shooting victim, who had to be transported to a hospital in Vietnam, have spent already US$6,000 for transportaion, operations, and treatment; they are still waiting for the promised financial help.

Three quite different voices have been reported to have expressed their dismay:

Sia Phearum, Secretary-General of the Housing Rights Task Force: “We monitored the protest and found that the local authorities and Phnom Penh municipal authorities have no capacity to solve the problem – they just know how to beat people and arrest people. I think they also disrespect the Prime Minister.”

Mu Sochua, member of Parliament, called on Phnom Penh municipal governor Kep Chuktema to seek solutions. “This is a total culture of impunity. No use of force by the police is justified, and the governor hasn’t even come to address this.”

Seniors CPP lawmaker and de facto ruling party spokesperson Cheam Yeap said the authorities had no right to detain land dispute protesters. “Villagers have rights for protesting, and the authorities had no right to arrest them.”

It is time and again surprising to observe that there are cases where law enforcement authorities start to act only after being reminded by the Prime Minister about their duties. And also, how quickly such orders are forgotten and not adhered to again.

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