Cambodia orders rare investigation of shooting in land protest

Protesters hold a portrait of the land-rights activist Tep Vanny in front of the Supreme Court during appeal hearing, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Between 2000 and 2014, about 770,000 Cambodians were affected by land conflicts

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK - Cambodian authorities have ordered an investigation into violent clashes over a land dispute in which a protester was shot, after a video clip of the incident sparked outrage on social media.

A man was shot and a 10-year-old boy injured in the clash last week between nearly 300 villagers and 200 policemen in Preah Sihanouk province in the country's south.

At the time, local authorities said the protesters were outsiders who were not residents of the village, and that the protesters were responsible for the shooting.

A video clip that surfaced a few days later showed a provincial military police officer beating a protester with an assault rifle, and another kicking the head of a man who lay on the ground with his hands tied.

This week, Sao Sokha, commander of the National Military Police, said a team had been set up to investigate the incident.

"If we find that the provincial military police officials used excessive force, then they would be punished according to the law," he told reporters.

An activist in Phnom Penh said that while violent protests were common, police investigations such as this were rare, and might have been sparked by outrage over the video clip.

"This is about the use of excessive force, so the investigation may be the government's way of showing they are taking this seriously," said Sopheap Chak, executive director of advocacy group the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

"But we have to wait and see if there will be a fair investigation, and whether there will be justice for the victims," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.

The long-running dispute in Koki village is over land claimed by several families.

Authorities said dozens of families with no legal right to the land had refused to move from their homes, even after the Supreme Court in 2017 ruled the land belonged to nine families.

Last week, matters came to a head as authorities tried to enter the disputed area. Villagers blocked the road with burning tyres, and hurled rocks and petrol bombs at the police, according to local reports.

The impoverished Southeast Asian country has been riven with conflict over land since the Khmer Rouge destroyed the nation's property records to establish a form of communism in the 1970s.

Between 2000 and 2014, about 770,000 Cambodians - more than 6 percent of the population - were affected by land conflicts, according to human rights lawyers who filed a complaint at the International Criminal Court in 2014.

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