Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Preah Vihear Provincial Authorities Arrest Villagers and Fire Weapons in Clash Over Land Dispute

Residents of Srayong Tboung village clashed with gendarmes, police and forestry administration officials on Wednesday. (Supplied)
Residents of Srayong Tboung village clashed with gendarmes, police and forestry administration officials on Wednesday. (Supplied)

On Wednesday authorities, including gendarmes, police and forestry administration officials, fired weapons and arrested residents during a clash over long-disputed land in Srayong commune, Kulen district, Preah Vihear province. Authorities with tractors arrived in the morning to clear land and detained around 40 people during the confrontation, according to villagers. Those arrested remain in custody at the provincial police station where they were brought for questioning.

“People were injured as police in riot gear attempted to disperse them [residents] with teargas and spray. Not only that, they sprayed gunfire continually,” said Mai Toun of Srayong Tboung village. “I was so scared that I only dared to stand far from the crowds to avoid repercussions from authorities.” 

The land conflict dates back to 2011 when rubber plantation company Seladamex was granted a 9,000-hectare economic land concession in Srayong and Phnom Tbeng II communes. Representatives of 131 families reported in 2022 that they feared further evictions after authorities destroyed crops and houses on the disputed piece of land. In December 2023, the Kulen district administration ordered 131 families in Srayong  commune to leave the disputed area no later than January 10, 2024. 

A video of the incident Toun filmed shows a crowd of villagers clashing with armed police, yelling “throw back at them, throw stones” and “get some petrol, kick them away.” Armed forces shot AK-47 in different directions. Villagers reported that around 300 residents were present during the incident. 

One villager was bleeding from his head as a result of the brutal clash, although not from a bullet wound, and was then dragged by police into a police car, Toun said. Authorities also burned down and dismantled huts in the area.  

A hut was burned down during the conflict in Srayong Tboung village of Preah Vihear province on March 6, 2024. (Supplied)

Kulen district police chief Ou Seng said that authorities mounted a crackdown on people who had illegally built huts on company’s land and attempted to occupy the land without jurisdiction. 

“They have been sent to the province in order for the upper authorities to proceed with further inquiry​​ at Preah Vihear Provincial Police. They have not been sent for detention yet. It is the first stage for now,” he said.

Seng declined to comment further and referred CamboJA News to Kulen district governor Pen Cheoung. Cheoung said that the district level authorities collaborated with provincial officials on the mass crackdown, including police and Preah Vihear forestry administration officials.

“We launched a crackdown on people who attempted to occupy the company’s land. People are from different areas coming to build huts and occupy the land for crop cultivation,” Cheung said, adding that most of the people hail from an area called Svay Leu.

“Whenever there is a crackdown, there is alway a clash taking place,” he said.

Cheoung declined to comment on how many people were arrested and what further legal actions provincial authorities would carry out against those detained. Kulen district police chief Seng also did not provide CamboJA News with the number of people arrested when asked. 

Preah Vihear forestry administration chief Ith Phoumra could not be reached for comment. Suos Sokdara, Preah Vihear provincial police chief, did not respond to requests for comment and multiple calls on Wednesday went unanswered.

One day before the incident, Preah Vihear deputy provincial governor Nop Vuthy issued a letter stating that an influx of people were illegally encroaching on state land and committing criminal offenses, causing serious disorder in the area. The letter accuses residents of instigating insecurity on the company’s concession, including mobilizing people to protest, using hand-made explosive weapons and illegal drugs, and stealing, as well as other forms of intimidation. 

Vuthy told CamboJA News the case following the incident falls beyond his jurisdiction now, and directed further questions to Preah Vihear Provincial Court. Thol Keom Heom, Preah Vihear Provincial Court prosecutor, said Thursday he has not received the case.

Seladamex Chairman of the Board of Directors Samith Vireak did not answer multiple phone calls to request comment. 

Toun told CamboJA News that authorities began erecting barricades around each entry to the disputed land mid-February, blocking access to the villagers. Guards armed with AK-47s were also deployed last month and stationed at each post to prevent people from getting in.

“We have cultivated this land for many years. We do not encroach on the company’s land. They are intimidating and discriminating against us as though we are not Khmer,” she said. “People have cleared and cultivated the land since before the company arrived.”

Toun emphasized that this was not the first time her community had experienced injustice at the hands of authorities related to this piece of land. Since the company was granted the concession, she said outsiders have come to clear people’s farmland and authorities have treated residents as if they were encroachers.  

“The authorities burned people’s houses, assaulted and arrested them. We are very poor. Why do they persecute us like this? I sincerely urge the authorities to release those arrested and grant us full jurisdiction because we have used this land for generations,” she said. “They are cruel. They do not have sympathy towards people like us.”

Mam Sitha, president of the Cambodia Independent Anti-Corruption Committee, said that Wednesday’s mass crackdown on local residents is evidence of authorities using intimidation and threats against locals who struggle to scrape by as farmers. 

“It is farmland which people cleared to make way for cultivation before the company received an economic land concession. But authorities seem to neglect supporting the people,” Sitha said. “They should consider carving out the land for people in order for them to have enough land for their livelihoods, based on the government policy and land law. It is illogical that they cannot do so.”

Sitha worked to facilitate a solution for residents in Srayong Tboung village in a similar incident in 2022. She said the company appeared to shut down its operations around 2013 and that is when some residents began farming on the land again. 

Under the 2001 Land Law, land concessions created for industrial cultivation may be canceled if they remain inactive for more than 12 months without proper justification.