PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) – Security forces fatally shot a teenage girl Wednesday during a clash with villagers armed with axes and crossbows in eastern Cambodia, in the latest of several violent evictions aimed at clearing land for development.
Cambodia’s system of commercial land concessions, decried by activists as opaque and corrupt, has become a volatile issue nationwide and prompted a U.N. inquiry. Last month, a high-profile activist was slain after investigating illegal logging in a forest concession.
On Wednesday, about 400 police and soldiers raided a settlement in Kratie province after community leaders rejected demands to vacate their farmland for several months, provincial Gov. Sar Chamrong said. The security forces clashed with about 200 villagers armed with axes, crossbows and sticks.
He said a 15-year-old girl was critically wounded in the confrontation and later died at a hospital.
Government forces secured the area and were hunting for five accused ringleaders who escaped into the jungle, Sar Chamrong said. He alleged that the protesters were trying to set up a self-governing zone outside of the law.
Authorities say the land is owned by the government, but the activists say the previously state-owned land already has been awarded to a Russian company to be developed as a plantation.
Accused protest ringleader Bun Ratha said about 500 villagers have been farming the land for years and have nowhere else to go. Speaking to The Associated Press by phone just before fleeing the scene, Bun Ratha said he had been briefly detained last month on charges of destroying private property during a protest.
The incident is the latest fallout from widespread evictions and land grabs that have sparked unrest nationwide, with deadly force sometimes employed by both public and private security forces.
Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive a week ago suspending new land concessions to private companies and ordering a review of existing ones. The move was announced during a visit by a U.N. human rights envoy who warned that land disputes in Cambodia must be resolved fairly so that they do not provoke violence.
The issue garnered worldwide attention last month when 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.
The U.N. envoy, Surya Subedi, said Friday that Cambodia’s system of land concessions appears riddled with problems, including low transparency and minimal consultation with affected communities. Subedi is due to make a formal report on the issue later this year to the U.N. Human Rights Council.