Scattered through mile after mile of rubber trees bearing their cracked clay bowls like so many begging monks, the village of Pro Ma feels as fragile as an afterthought. Land once rich with forest now crumbles beneath the smoke-choked sun. Between towering termite mounds clenched like white knuckles, farmers hack at the dirt with rusted hoes, rows of cassava wilting in their wake.
In a vacant field ringed by cashew trees, the grave of a teenage girl is still bright with white flowers. This makeshift shrine of wood and rusted metal is all that remains of a violent clash almost six years ago between a handful of farmers fighting for their land and the full might of the Cambodian military.
In neighbouring Snuol district, though, the fight is far from over. A long-standing land dispute between residents of Pi Thnou commune and the Memot Rubber Plantation Company erupted in bloodshed yesterday as armed security forces reportedly opened fire on hundreds of villagers – some apparently armed with knives and machetes – protesting the alleged burning of their homes and farms.
Footage from the clash shows panicked villagers scattering as security forces let off rapid-fire bursts from their assault rifles. While the number of casualties remains unclear, Radio Free Asia has reported as many as eight dead and a further 40 injured. Local media on the ground including the Phnom Penh Post have quoted eyewitness accounts of between two and six dead. Local authorities dismissed claims that any villagers had lost their lives in the clash. A Cambodia Daily report last year quoted Pi Thnou commune chief Bun Nhal as saying that the Cambodian government had granted almost 10,000 hectares of an economic land concession to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana in 2008.
For the people of Pro Ma, yesterday’s violence would have been an all-too-familiar sight. Just weeks before the clash, Southeast Asia Globe travelled to Kratie to investigate the legacy of a bloody showdown between Cambodian armed forces and local residents that claimed the life of 14-year-old Heng Chantha.
Standing by her grave, local farmer Chhon described how soldiers and military police descended on the village under the shadow of a military helicopter. They had been charged with rooting out an unlikely ‘insurrection’ that the government claimed had designs on carving out its own autonomous state in the impoverished village nestled near the Vietnam border in Kratie province’s Chhlong district. Terrified, the villagers huddled around the local temple and prepared for the worst.
“The soldiers started marching from the edge of the village,” he said. “We all gathered around the temple with knives, sticks – whatever tools we could find to protect ourselves. Our intention wasn’t to kill the soldiers, just to defend ourselves. But the soldiers were furious.”
When the army passed by their house, Chantha rose from her hiding spot to watch them go. Startled, a soldier shot her once in the stomach.
As hundreds of soldiers tramped through the village, the family of 14-year-old Heng Chantha were hunkered down in their wooden shack, waiting for the thrum of jackboots to die. When the army passed by their house, Chantha rose from her hiding spot to watch them go. Startled, a soldier shot her once in the stomach.
Her family never recovered. Chhai, a young farmer whose family was close to the dead girl’s parents, described a family buckling beneath the burden of poverty.
“They stayed here around another half [a] year or so, but they were struggling,” he said. “They moved around here and there – to Siem Reap, now to Stung Treng. They haven’t really stayed anywhere permanently since then.”
It was a tragedy years in the making. Living on the edge of a sprawling 15,000-hectare land concession leased to partly Russian-owned agro-business Casotim more than a decade earlier, more than 1,000 farmers and their families had been told that the little land they had carved out from the surrounding forest was now private property. In the weeks leading up to the clash, a handful of land rights activists – apparently led by a man named Bun Ratha – had been working with locals to apply for legal titles to land they had worked for years.
Yoath, whose family name has been withheld to protect her identity, moved to Pro Ma just over six years ago. She told Southeast Asia Globe that the activist had visited her just weeks before the crackdown.
“Bun Ratha came to convince us that we would have our rights to own the land, to take it back from the company,” she said. “We said sure, that would be great. Who doesn’t want to own their own land for farming? Then here came the troops and helicopters. ‘Don’t you dare plan an insurrection with this guy – or you can’t continue living here,’ they said.”
One of just three teachers working in a tin-shed school that shares its plot with the village’s ramshackle pagoda, Hong Phal – affectionately known in the village as ‘Kru Ngeak’, or Teacher Twitch, for his signature facial tic – knows little about the partly Russian-owned company that many locals believe forced his fellow villagers from their homes. Despite this, Phal was one of eight local men hauled to Kratie’s provincial court by the police in the wake of the crackdown. He denied any connection to the activist, saying that he had only been protesting against the local police’s extortion of the village’s most vulnerable.
“It was the Casotim company,” he said. “To be honest, I have no idea where they were at, what they were doing here – I’d never seen them. But I remember seeing the police chief coming to the village and asking for money. I kept debating with them – how can the residents get the money to pay? I kept resisting the police. And they started to smear me of being insurrectionist.”
Although the government’s now-outlawed practice of leasing off swathes of state-owned land to the highest bidder has long been criticised for leaving rural Cambodians vulnerable to private companies with friends in high places, the Pro Ma crackdown still stands out as a particularly violent suppression of local land rights. Chhon, the farmer, told Southeast Asia Globe that he believed there was more to the dispute than had been reported.
“The soldiers were being used to threaten the villagers because they wanted to help one of the Cambodian People’s Party’s close allies. His name was Ta Seng, and he has big businesses here and around the province,” he said, using an honorific meaning ‘grandpa’. “He wanted to grab those lands for himself.”
One local who claimed to be a member of the tycoon’s extended family said that Peng Seng was a distant relative – though allegedly a close business connection – of Cambodia’s first lady Bun Rany. Despite his name being well known across Kratie in connection with the province’s vast rubber plantations, there is little public trace of the tycoon’s activities beyond its borders. Chhon alleged that Seng had been a key backer of the rubber business that drove Pro Ma’s villagers from their homes. Seng did not respond to numerous phone calls from Southeast Asia Globe.
“Bun Ratha was very active in the village in raising awareness, saying that people should have land titles,” he said. “He was leading the villagers to protest against Seng for grabbing the land. They burned one of the tents in the base camp that Seng had built for his workers to live in – but after they burned it, that’s when Seng sent the troops in and started to accuse him of insurrection.”
A series of sub-decrees issued in the early months of 2013 also reallocated almost 10,000 hectares of concessional land leased to Casotim as state private land to more than 2,000 families across Chhlong district.
In early 2013, with a national election looming, Prime Minister Hun Sen mobilised a battalion of university students to survey rural properties, granting land titles to thousands of families locked in long-running land disputes – though the programme has since been marred with scattered reports of local authorities flogging the land certificates to the highest bidder once the students had returned to the capital. A series of sub-decrees issued in the early months of 2013 also reallocated almost 10,000 hectares of concessional land leased to Casotim as state private land to more than 2,000 families across Chhlong district.
Hok Soeurn, 62, whose son – Heng Chantha’s cousin – was arrested in 2012 by local police while trying to take the wounded girl to hospital, said that life in Pro Ma had grown easier since the students had come. “We’re doing OK now – we finally have ownership of the land,” she said. “Before it was so chaotic.”
When Soeurn was asked when the volunteers had visited her family, a neighbouring farmer – who declined to give his name – cut her off. “It was right after the soldiers did their terrorism,” he said. “They wanted things to calm down, so they sent the volunteer students to come and help us with land titles to keep us happy.”
But for many people in Pro Ma, the violence of 2012 has left scars that show little sign of healing.
“All Bun Ratha was doing was helping the farmers fight against their own suffering,” Chhon said. “And then the soldiers came as a shell for grabbing the land from farmers and villagers. They weren’t going after any secessionists – they were just grabbing the land instead.”