ANG SNUOL, Kandal — Some among 50 soldiers fired at the feet of a dozen farmers on Thursday, hitting and injuring one, as the Defense Ministry moved to take over state land that locals have farmed for decades, according to villagers.
The villagers responded to the shooting by staging a protest in the afternoon, blocking National Road 51 with felled trees and a small fire in front of dozens of trucks that were stopped from passing.
“I was shaking. I saw the smoke of the guns,” said Paing Voeun, who lives near where Thursday’s incident occurred in Ang Snuol district’s Tuol Pich commune.
A small paved road turns a corner in the midst of about 300 hectares of fields in the commune. Around 9 a.m., about 50 soldiers escorted an excavator to that corner to begin digging a trench to mark off the land as the Defense Ministry’s, villagers said.
Voeun was with her husband, Pin Moeun, standing on the paved road, with the soldiers about 20 meters away in the field. Moeun said he heard no warning from the soldiers before they opened fire. He didn’t know how many of them were shooting, but it was many, he said.
Mom Chantha, 50, was hit in the left shoulder during the shooting, through a shirt emblazoned with a logo of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. According to villagers, he might lose the use of his left arm.
Chantha was taken to the Toul Pich commune health center before being sent to Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital, said Heng Sopheak, an eyewitness to the shooting.
Sopheak, 30, said about a dozen villagers were there hoping to stop the military from digging the trench.
“I was at the front. They shot the ground at my feet to stop us from coming,” he said. Sopheak ran back about 10 meters, then heard a wail.
“There was shouting, and I saw him fall. Then I saw the blood coming out,” Sopheak said.
At the roadblock in the afternoon, a man held up the blood-stained shirt among about 50 protesting villagers. Another man showed a photo on his phone of dozens of shell casings left behind by the soldiers. The aftermath of the shooting, showing Chantha bleeding and the soldiers in the field, was also caught on video.
“We’re not pulling back,” Sopheak said. “But after the shooting, they were the ones who pulled back. … We’re not scared.”
This is the first shooting incident involving protesters and armed security forces in two years.
Authorities shot and critically injured a man in Preah Sihanouk province in 2019, according to rights group Licadho, as heavily armed security forces cracked down on land protesters, who were armed with sticks and had burnt some tires.
Security forces also shot and injured at least two land protesters in Kratie’s Snuol district in 2018. The villagers were protesting against Memot Rubber Plantation, which was clearing their land and burning small huts, according to the Phnom Penh Post. Investigations into the shooting incident by rights groups were hampered at the time after access to the plantation was blocked.
Villagers in Ang Snuol said on Thursday that they’ve farmed the land for decades, but last year both the commune and district had called them in to tell them that the defense and environment ministries were reclaiming the state land and would buy it back from them. But no offer has materialized. Instead, soldiers set up outposts on the land, began digging a moat-like trench, and blocked farmers from using the land, they said.
At one military outpost of mere ramshackle vinyl tarps, a soldier washing himself with a bucket said they were there to protect the state’s land. People had farmed it without permission, he said. He had heard the gunshots in the morning, he added, but would say little else. They were following orders from the top, the soldier said.
Defense Ministry spokesperson Un Sovann said he was still collecting information about the incident.
“I have not received an official report yet, and when I receive detailed information I will reply to you. We are watching it closely and I am collecting evidence,” Sovann said.
A statement issued by the Kandal provincial administration on Thursday said the area was state land, one part of which the government had granted to be used by the Defense Ministry and another part for the Environment Ministry. Authorities were working to minimize the impact and to find a solution for the people relying on the 280 hectares, it said, requesting that protesters reopen the road and be patient for a compromise. If they don’t follow instructions, they will face legal action, it said. The statement did not mention the morning’s shooting.
Some villagers said they had soft titles in the area while others said they did not. Three to four hundred villagers had claims there, they said.
A 42-year-old farmer said the land was worth between $50 to $100 per square meter, but the villagers would be happy to get $10 per square meter from the state.
“They haven’t given compensation and they make the boundaries. Once they make the boundaries we won’t get anything,” the farmer said.
In the afternoon, military officials had come to the roadblock and told the villagers that the soldiers had fired out of self-defense, he said.
“We were empty-handed. … We didn’t do anything and they fired at us,” the farmer said. “Sometimes I’m scared that I might have a problem. They have the power. I’m like a mosquito. They can do anything. If we protest strongly, maybe we might go to jail.”
But the villagers couldn’t simply let others take their land, he said.
“I feel more secure when we think that people across the country will know about this incident. I feel more safe,” the farmer said, but explained that he didn’t want his name in this article.
“We don’t have a court system that can protect us. If they want to arrest us, they can arrest us. The law is in their hands.”
Additional reporting by Khan Leakhena