Twelve Cambodians were shot dead by Thai security forces on March 5 after illegally crossing the border from Choam Ksan district in Preah Vihear province to log timber, Cambodian officials said yesterday.
Another three illegal loggers were killed on Wednesday and two others are still missing, military officials added.
Preap Thoeurth, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) intelligence officer at the border in Preah Vihear, said that Thai soldiers fatally shot 15 loggers near tiny Chheu Teal Kong village over the past two weeks, beginning with the carnage of March 5.
“This is the fourth or fifth time already that the Thai military fired at loggers so far this year,” he said. “Most of them are migrant villagers from Kampot and Kampong Speu.”
Another logger, who had crossed into Thailand on February 28, was sent back across the border by Thai forces on Wednesday, he added.
Pen Song, deputy military commander in Preah Vihear, confirmed the death tally, calling it “one of the biggest [fatal shooting] incidents” in memory, and accused the Thai military of breaching an agreement between the two sides not to use deadly force against loggers.
“When there is a meeting [with the Thai military], we always ask them to not shoot at the people while they cross the border,” he said. “We ask them to make arrests and fine [them], but they are never careful.”
Song added that local villagers are often turned back by RCAF border patrols, but migrant workers from other provinces often slip past them, hiding in forest and sneaking across the border.
Major General Phat Sophen, chief of the Cambodian-Thai Border Relations Office in Preah Vihear, said that he was informed of the shootings of loggers, but had not received confirmation from the Thais.
“I heard the information about the shooting,” he said. “But Thailand has yet to inform the Cambodian authorities about the shootings. Previously, if there is a shooting of Cambodian people, they [the Thai military] have sent information to us.”
Sophen added that his office received a letter from the Thai side on March 8 stating that they had arrested a Cambodian villager and he would face legal action, but the letter made no mention of an incident involving live fire.
Another deputy military commander for Preah Vihear, Colonel Meas Yoeun, said that soldiers under his watch had told him what happened.
“They used to climb a mountain in Kampot to collect resin [from trees], but when they came here and climbed the mountain for logging, they faced something horrible,” he said. “They knew that it was risky, but if they could cut some logs and bring them back, it would be like they had farmed land for a year.”
Preah Vihear coordinator for rights group Adhoc Lor Chan said that he received information about the shooting, but did not know exactly how many people were shot.
He urged the families of the victims to file complaints to his office so that he could write to the authorities to intervene.
“I just know there is a shooting, but do not have the details,” he said. “The victims are poor people, so they take risks to cross … with a guarantee from some officials that they will be safe – that’s why they take the risk.”
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday referred questions about the incident to the military. The Thai military commander overseeing border affairs had not responded to a request for comment by press time.
At least 69 Cambodians were shot dead by Thai security forces last year, while 165 people were arrested or detained, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Ou Virak, an activist and former president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that, if the details of the shootings were confirmed, the Thai government should be held to account under international law.
“So many people have been dying in a similar fashion. It’s a serious, serious, human rights issue,” he said. “It’s a serious violation of international law, and the Thais need to be responsible and investigate, to make sure it won’t happen again.”
“Nobody deserves to die, to be shot for illegal logging. They need to try to address this from an international law perspective, and the Thai government needs to be held to account.… If they cannot, Thailand will become a failed state.”