Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Environment Ministry Asks Kraol Indigenous People to Apologize For Burning Down Building

After the burning of the Environment Ministry station, a filing cabinet and bent pieces of corrugated sheet metal were left at the scene. (CamboJA/Andrew Califf)
After the burning of the Environment Ministry station, a filing cabinet and bent pieces of corrugated sheet metal were left at the scene. (CamboJA/Andrew Califf)

Two weeks after the Kraol indigenous community set fire to an Environment Ministry station in Kratie, the ministry invited local authorities and indigenous people to a meeting on Wednesday and requested that the indigenous community apologize. Only one indigenous person invited attended.

“[The ministry] hit people’s heads with a hammer and then asked people to pay for the hammer,” said Ti Khloe, a Kraol community member who was invited but did not attend. “It is impossible for Kraol indigenous people to apologize.”

More than 300 villagers participated in burning down the ministry station in Srae Chis commune following a years-long dispute between local communities and ministry officials. Rumors, later confirmed, of a 4,500 hectare expansion of the Sor Sor Sdom Sat Tao protected area led the Kraol indigenous people to burn the building in protest.

“No arrests have been made. We just want them to acknowledge their mistakes,” said O’Krieng Senchey District Governor Chhea Phally.

Phally told CamboJA that the purpose of the ministry’s meeting was to mediate the conflict, get the Kraol indigenous people to accept the mistakes they made, and reach an agreement related to rebuilding the station. 

Environment Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Kratie provincial Environment Department Director Chhay Duong Savuth said this issue was not resolved at the meeting because only one Kraol community member attended.

“We asked them to meet and talk to solve the issue, but they did not come. So we could not end [the conflict],” he said. 

He told CamboJA to direct further to Commune Chief Pich Touch. When contacted by CamboJA, Touch said he was unaware of the meeting.

But Khloe said Touch called him and other community members last week to relay information about the ministry’s invitation to the meeting, saying the ministry planned to talk about the root cause of the burning and protest. He said community members asked Touch to bring a request to the Environment Ministry, asking that they have the meeting in Srae Chis commune instead. 

“We did not go. This [issue] is related to all of the people in the whole commune, but why were only nine people invited?” Khloe asked. “It is unusual, and that’s why we decided not to go.”

Khloe told CamboJA that Touch had told the community to apologize to the ministry starting right after the incident. Community members rejected the invitation to the meeting because they were concerned they would be arrested, he said.

“We are worried about our safety. The problem happened here [in Kratie]. Why did they call us to Phnom Penh?” Khloe added. “Who knows whether they will just question us or if they won’t let us back home?”

Yon Eam, Kratie provincial coordinator for the NGO Adhoc, told CamboJA that the indigenous community members did not dare to meet the ministry in Phnom Penh.

“They did not go [to Phnom Penh] because they were afraid of arrest,” he said. “They are truly frightened.” 

Another community member named Run Kimsean was also invited but chose not to attend the meeting. His wife, who declined to give CamboJA her name because she feared for her safety, participated in the protest and wondered why the ministry invited only nine people to the meeting when the whole indigenous community in Srae Chis commune was involved. 

“If there is a car for the whole village, we go,” she said. “If we go, we go together.”

Kraol community member Sream Teang was invited but said he did not attend because he was afraid to talk with the ministry. He had never been invited to a meeting with the ministry like this. 

“I am worried because we live here. It’s so scary,” he said. “We never go to that kind of meeting. If we do, we go together.”