PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodian activists say a 13-year-old girl was shot to death Wednesday in the latest of several clashes between villagers and authorities trying to evict them to make room for development.
Hundreds of armed police and soldiers tried to sweep out villagers in northeastern Kratie province from what authorities claim is state land, villager and activist Bun Ratha said. The villagers say the land has been ceded to a Russian company as a concession to be developed as a plantation, but they have been farming it for years and have nowhere else to go.
Bun Ratha said the teen was shot as 10 policemen tried to force a family out of their house. He said the girl died en route to hospital. At least 500 people are believed to live on the property.
National Police spokesman Lt. Gen. Kiet Chantharith said he did not know of any girl being shot to death. He said the government had repeatedly ordered the villagers to leave, but they had defied efforts to push them out and fought back with homemade weapons such as axes and crossbows. He described the situation as "anarchy."
The incident comes days after Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive suspending new land concessions to private companies and ordering a review of existing ones. The directive was announced during a visit by a special U.N. human rights envoy who warned that land disputes in Cambodia must be fairly dealt with so that they do not provoke violence and social unrest.
The issue garnered worldwide attention last month after Chut Wutty, a prominent Cambodian environmentalist, was shot dead by a military policeman as he was returning from investigating illegal logging in a concession area.
Chan Soveth of the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc said about 200 police, soldiers and military police had taken part in the raid. He said villagers and a staff member of his group told him that the girl died after being shot in the chest.
He said the villagers were being confined to their houses while the authorities searched for the protest leaders. In recent months, the villagers had protested several times and blocked roads twice, he said.
Chan Soveth said the government had accused the villagers of trying to establish an "autonomous zone" — self-governing and outside of Cambodian law. But he said the villagers merely sought to be allowed to stay on the land they had been farming.
U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi said Friday after an eight-day visit that Cambodia's system of land concessions appears riddled with problems, including low transparency and minimal consultation with affected communities.
Subedi, who is due to make a formal report on the land issue later this year to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said the violence attached to the land issue was a major concern, and that a workable solution must be found.
"If a concession seeks to take individual's land and property, the right to a remedy should be accessible and appropriated compensation must be offered," he said.