Crackdown in Siem Reap
|Our Correspondent||Apr 27, 2009|
Video footage of an allegedly unprovoked attack by police on unarmed farmers in Siem Reap last month has sparked outrage in Cambodia because of what it showed and because the reaction from the national government sent another strong signal that state officials and those connected to them can violate laws with impunity, human rights groups say.
"Unless action is taken to defuse the tense land situation in the country, sadly there will likely be more shootings such as occurred in Chi Kreng [district, Siem Reap]," said Kek Galabru, president of to the Cambodian League for the Promotion of Human Rights (Licadho).
"Real action must be taken to address Cambodia's land crisis and to ensure that authorities do use violence against innocent villagers who are merely trying hold on their land," she said.
According to the monitoring department of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc) the number of forced evictions in Cambodia is rising and land disputes are becoming more violent despite the free fall in land prices that began in the middle of last year and more frequent and fiery warnings from Prime Minister Hun Sen that any state officials involved in illegal land deals, no matter how high their rank, will be severely punished.
Moreover, the border conflict with Thailand and the subsequent build up of troops on the Cambodian side has increased land grabbing by the military as well as illegal logging in protected forests along the border, environmentalists and human rights investigators warn.
The Siem Reap farmers are the victims of both land grabbing and state-sanctioned violence, human rights groups say. At the root of the incident is a five-year dispute that escalated last December when two community leaders and one journalist were arrested following a court complaint from two businessmen who the farmers allege illegally obtained and then resold titles to 92 hectares of land they had been farming since, in some cases, 1982. In January farmers surrounded the provincial courthouse for 17 days to demand the release of the three.
It escalated further last month when a joint task force of about 100 police and military personnel opened fire on the farmers. The video of the crackdown almost never made it out of the rural pagoda where it was first shown, according to Buddhist monk Sovath Loun, who transmitted it to human rights groups in Phnom Penh via cell phone.
Sovath Loun, whose older brother and nephew were shot and wounded during the March 22 crackdown, said that at one point during his negotiations with district police over the incident, he was warned that if he didn't turn over his videos and photographs, the military might storm his pagoda in Chi Kreng district to seize them. The pagoda is located about 30 kilometers from Angkor Wat, the country's top tourist destination.
One video, which the monk obtained from a farmer who hid his video-equipped cellphone under his hat, suggests that the signal to begin shooting came from the deputy district police chief, and clearly identifies another officer who allegedly wounded two farmers after he opened fire with his AK47, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion of Human Rights (Licadho). www.licadho-cambodia.org
The footage contradicts government claims that the police were acting in self defense, the league says, and it is calling for the prosecution of those who shot four farmers as well as the release of nine others subsequently jailed on charges of assault and attempted theft (of the rice they had planted).
"This was extremely serious violence against villagers committed by government armed forces, and it demands a strong response by the government. The police and other officials who committed this violence must be punished," Licadho said.
The province's governor, Mr. Sou Phirin, pledged to personally resolve the dispute following the protest at the provincial court, but his attempt at reconciliation aggravated it. He proposed that the businessmen be given the rice and farmers who had planted it be compensated by being paid for their seeds, according to the Adhoc report, which also said the governor's attempt at reconciling the two sides was marred by open hostility towards the farmers and their lawyer, whom he cursed at during the negotiations.
When the farmers declined the governor's solution, the police and military were called in to enforce it, human rights investigators say. The video from the farmer shows a stand-off in which the farmers refuse to leave the land, despite the presence of about 100 police and soldiers. The shooting started at about 9.30am, according to farmers who later fled to Phnom Penh.
Sovath Loun's videos and scores of photographs include the aftermath as well as extremely graphic footage and photos from the hospital, including close ups of gaping wounds and doctors trying to treat them, as well as bleeding farmers beaten unconscious and tied together in rows. His videos and photos provide an extremely rare and detailed look into what many have been warning for years is, among other things, a grave threat to stability in Cambodia: the government's alleged complicity in allowing, and in some cases assisting, those in positions of power to steal land from the poor.
The 30-year-old monk first showed the videos to about 20 monks, nuns and laypersons at Vat Sleng Pagoda a week after the crackdown. The day after the first of several police officers paid a visit. The low-ranking officer had been instructed by the district chief of police to find out how many VCDs had been made and to take them, Sovath Loun said. "I asked the officer, ‘what law did I break?"
He broke the silence that ensued by enquiring further, "Do you want to borrow it or do you want to take it?"
"If you want to borrow it you can, but if you want to take it you can't," he continued. If the officer was devout he would be aware it would be a severe transgression to lie to a monk, while if he was merely superstitious he could be frightened into believing that a lie to a venerable monk in pagoda might be an invitation to bad luck for him and his family, he said.
The officer opted to relay the choice to his superiors. Over the next few days more officers and district officials visited him at the pagoda and the hospital where he was tending his brother and nephew. They told him to stop taking photos, turn over his VCD and sign a letter pledging not to disseminate the images, Sovath Loun said. He replied by telling them they could have the VCD if they signed a letter promising to resolve the land dispute and bring those who shot the farmers to justice.
During a second visit by police to his pagoda an officer warned him that if he kept the VCD he might have to deal with the military. Sovath Loun quoted the officer as saying: "The military might attack the pagoda to seize it."
On the third visit the monk turned over his VCD, but by this time he had already distributed about 100 copies throughout surrounding villages and widely transmitted the video of the crackdown taken by the farmer via his cell phone. This video ended up at human rights organizations based in Phnom Penh and on the internet (http://hub.witness.org/en/upload/shooting-chi-kreng-siem-reap-v2).
On April 2, Sovath Loun left his pagoda for Phnom Penh. "My heart was too heavy to remain in Siem Reap. I came here to try to regain my peace of mind," he explained at Ounalum Pagoda. The pagoda, which was founded in 1443, is the headquarters of the Cambodian Buddhism and has been experiencing a steady rebirth following its desecration by the Khmer Rouge.
Sovath Loun said his attempt to regain his peace of mind at the pagoda became more difficult after an advisor to the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia's Buddhists, a layman and official from the Ministry of Cults and Religion, arrived at the pagoda on April 10 in a silver Lexus and told him to order the about 100 farmers from his district who had sought refuge with him to return to Siem Reap on April 10.
He described the ultimatum as being inspired by politics rather than the teachings of Buddha. "The order came from the government," he said.
During their 30 minute conversation, he tried to explain to the advisor that his claim that the farmers were "disturbing the pagoda" was illusory. "I kept telling him that no monks had complained while the farmers stayed at the pagoda. Instead, we gave them food and blessings. We felt great sorrow for them."
The government advisor, whom the monk described as "aggressive", could not be swayed, and after he drove off in his silver Lexus Sovath Loun had to tell the panicked farmers to leave the pagoda and return to Siem Reap. By midafternoon all but four had left. Monks paid for those who could not afford tickets, he said.
The four who remain in Phnom Penh, identified by Siem Reap police as leaders of the group, are in hiding at a "safe house". They fear they will either be shot or arrested if they return to their villages, one said by telephone. Police are searching house to house in their villages for them, Chan Soveth, an investigator with Adhoc said. The disputed farmland is now under guard by armed police and soldiers, he added.
"There is no truth in [state-run] media," Sovath Loun said, explaining his motivation for compiling and disseminating the videos. "Soldiers and police have guns for protecting people not shooting them," he added before beginning his evening meditation on April 12.
Within a week, however, he had also left the pagoda, according to venerable monk Thaich Chhorn, who kept a written diary of the protests by the Siem Reap farmers in Phnom Penh . Thaich Chhorn said Sovath Loun, who is also a painter, left the pagoda to paint murals on the inner walls of another one in the countryside.