The press photograph of 14-year-old Heng Chantha, laid out in her family home, was shocking. At around 8.30am Wednesday a force of up to 1000 armed soldiers, supported by a helicopter, stormed the village of Prama in the Kratie province and shot her dead.
Documentation from human rights group LICADHO reports Chantha had taken shelter on an elevated rattan bed that was partially obscured by a pile of wood. As a solider approached, Chantha rose to see what was happening. It was then the soldier shot her.
The Cambodia Daily reports the families have been locked in an increasingly bitter land dispute with the private firm Casotim and its 15,000-hectare, government-licensed rubber plantation.
Since the incident soldiers and military police have blocked all access to the village while authorities launched a massive operation to evict hundreds of families from the area under a cloak of secrecy. Human rights groups, journalists and UN representatives have been prevented from entering the site.
At least five soldiers were stationed on the road to the village, two armed with AK-47s, telling Cambodia Daily reporters that outsiders were forbidden from going any closer, which was still some 20 kilometres from the checkpoint. The soldiers, who declined to give their names, said they were under strict orders to allow only military personnel through to the village. The lockdown leaves villagers vulnerable to further abuses by armed forces.
Provincial governor Sar Chamrong told media that the villagers were attempting to secede from Cambodia and were arming themselves with “axes, knives, hoes, crossbows and arrows”. He said the operation went “successfully”.
LICADHO president Dr Pung Chhiv Kek was less enthused: “The secession allegations are a very transparent pretext — and not a very persuasive one — to justify the unlawful use of the military against civilians. Are we to believe that a few hundred villagers armed with sticks and crossbows are trying to start their own country? The more reasonable explanation is that they simply want to farm their own land.”
A consultant with LICADHO, Mathieu Pellerin, told The Phnom Penh Post the situation had reached a new low: “It is turning out to be the most violent year ever when it comes to the use of lethal force against activism.” Human rights group Adhoc added that the secessionist claims were “verging on the nonsensical”.
International condemnation of the violence continues to grow, coming just weeks after the murder of outspoken environmental activist Chut Wutty. Wutty was gunned down by military police near a protected forest area in Koh Kong province when he refused to hand over a memory card containing photographs of illegally logged timber. Two journalists travelling with Wutty were detained for questioning; one of the journalists has since left the country.
A joint investigative committee closed that investigation only three days after it was established by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Initially it was found that In Rattana, a member of the military police, had taken his own life after shooting Wutty. The committee has since handed an unintentional murder charge to security guard Ran Boroth for killing In Rattana.
At the closure of the case, Tith Sothea, a member of the joint committee said investigations were now closed into the matter.
The Post spoke with Chut Wutty’s wife, 40-year-old Sam Chanthay, who rejected the finding and said there were other reasons behind her husband’s death than just a mere personal argument with In Rattana — the official account of the military police.
Cambodia’s military police continue to act with complete impunity. Hun Sen, who recently referred to himself as “the master” in his last speech before the June 3 commune elections, employs fear-mongering rhetoric in public statement. Last Tuesday he warned that a change of government leadership would leave the country on the brink of collapse.
Hun Sen claimed that in 1977 he took the initiative after defecting from the Khmer Rouge to form an uprising against them, and that it was he who had led troops into battle. “On June 20, 1977, nobody could be Hun Sen’s master, so only Hun Sen was the master,” he said.
*The author did not have permission to speak on the matters and has chosen to remain anonymous.