More than 1,000 demonstrators from about 50 communities across the country gathered Monday to mark U.N. World Habitat Day and protest against widespread land and housing evictions, but found their march blocked by municipal authorities, who claimed the protesters posed a risk to security.
Beginning the march at around 9 a.m. in the former Dey Krahorm neighborhood—the site of a violent forced eviction in 2009—the protesters, led by a group carrying a large model wooden house, walked to the nearby National Assembly, pausing for around 30 minutes as four representatives delivered a petition to lawmakers inside.
Carrying banners that included the slogans “No Home, No Land, No Life,” and “Land and Housing Protesters are not Colour Revolutionists,” those assembled then attempted to march toward Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home near Independence Monument, but were blocked by more than 100 municipal police and military police officers who had set up a barricade at Sihanouk Boulevard.
Undeterred, the marchers doubled back on National Assembly Street to proceed to the ministries of interior and land management to submit petitions, but were once again halted—this time by a police barricade near the Australian Embassy.
Confined to the area in front of the National Assembly building, the demonstration wound down about an hour later.
“The government used the barricades to block the road to prevent the people from giving their opinion because they were seriously criticizing human rights abuses,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Licadho, which helped organize the event.
“We twice tried to ask permission from Phnom Penh City Hall to hold the event, but they told us that the letter was wrong and they returned it to us to make repeated corrections,” he added.
Deputy Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng said the demonstrators were not allowed to continue because the march was not only a nuisance, but also a danger to the public.
“We did not allow those people to march because we were worried about traffic jams,” Mr. Sreng said, adding that authorities were also “afraid that some bad people could hide in the crowd and toss a grenade.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said despite the number of marchers assembled Monday, the government would pay little heed to the protest, accusing the rights groups involved in organizing the event of having ulterior motives.
“I understand that people celebrating World Habitat Day today just wanted the international community to see that land disputes still happen in Cambodia but [the organizers] don’t have any real intention to demand a solution from the government,” Mr. Siphan said, claiming that most of the country’s land disputes had already been resolved.
“I think that the protest activities are not effective because the event was just organized by some organizations that are doing it for other advantages,” he said. “We are not accusing them of creating a problem, but they have an agenda behind their work.”
Ee Sarom, director of urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which helped organize Monday’s activities, said Mr. Siphan’s accusations were “completely wrong.”
“He has always rejected the truth,” Mr. Sarom said.
“They are the real people affected by the land-grabbing, the use of forced evictions—especially the people from the provinces,” he added. “They come with their husbands, they come with their wives, they come with their children because they want to show the government this is the problem they are facing.”
Mr. Sarom said that while the NGOs did arrange for food and transportation at the march for those coming from the provinces, it was only because these people were “very poor and evicted.”
“They want to have a chance to talk to the government in Phnom Penh,” he said.
Sam Thom, a 65-year-old protester who is among a group of villagers in Kompong Chhnang province embroiled in a longstanding land dispute with KDC, a development firm owned by the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem, said Monday that she would return to her province feeling let down.
“Before leaving home to be here, I had a strong hope that when we joined the march, we would get a resolution from the government,” she said. “But when I am here I know the government has no intention to help the people.”