‘Sometimes They Burn The Whole Village’

PREAH SIHANOUK PROVINCE – They were some of the most searing images of violence to emerge from the land crisis that swept Cambodia over the last decade. In scorching dry-season heat, the military shot villagers and torched their homes across this seaside province.

Witnesses said one eviction in April of 2007 at the village known as Spean Ches was particularly brutal. Security forces inflicted gunshot wounds at close range, used live fire to disperse crowds, and beat villagers, sometimes with batons that deliver electric shocks.

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Police and members of the Royal Gendarmerie stand guard over residents of Spean Ches village in Preah Sihanouk province after setting fire to their homes on April 20, 2007. (Licadho)

A joint force of about 150 members drawn from the police, the army, and the Royal Gendarmerie burned 80 houses and demolished another 26 homes.
“They used a type of fire gun to shoot flames to burn down the houses,” said Yeang Ren, 32.

Gendarmes arrested villagers, forced them to lie face down, and repeatedly kicked them in their heads, Ren said. “We felt great distress when we heard our houses being knocked down with an excavator.”

That month, a Cambodian navy unit burst into another community 15 miles away, beating one villager unconscious and burning down five houses to seize land that residents now say forms part of the campus of a local training school for the navy.

As property values rose over the last decade, Cambodia’s poorer rural and urban communities found themselves locked in land battles with the country’s oligarchy, which claimed rights to prime real estate. By 2014, more than half a million people had been affected by evictions, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion of Defense of Human Rights, a human rights organization known as Licadho, for its acronym in French.

The scale and violence of evictions at Spean Ches quickly became emblematic of the crisis, drawing the attention of the U.S. Embassy in its 2007 annual report on human rights. And in 2014, the Spean Ches eviction helped form the basis of a private legal action alleging crimes against humanity that was brought before the International Criminal Court.

Yet as the crisis unfolded, Washington intensified its relations with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and police.

Congress, in 1997, had outlawed assistance to foreign security forces known to have committed gross violations of human rights. Yet diplomatic files published by WikiLeaks and compiled by the nonprofit investigative journalism group 100Reporters show that American officials overlooked such violations in vetting Cambodian police and military personnel for their eligibility to receive U.S.-funded training—in some cases apparently in violation of the law.

Two years after the violence at Spean Ches, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh recommended Colonel Seng Phok, a deputy commander in the Royal Gendarmerie, for U.S. training, the same man a human rights worker said was among the commanding officers during the eviction.

100Reporters also found that the United States provided training in investigative techniques to senior members of Cambodia’s National Police Commissariat who at the time were the subject of detailed murder and kidnapping allegations.

To continue reading on 100Reporters.org, click here.

This article, produced by 100Reporters and co-published with World Policy Journal, is part of larger series examining how the United States has trained alleged human rights abusers in apparent violation of U.S. law. The 100Reporters series is based on field reporting, eye witness accounts and information from Wikileaks diplomatic cables compiled into a searchable database will be published in April.

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