Meas Somaly said she represented no fewer than 250 families as she stood in front of the National Assembly on Monday morning.
Protesting alleged land grabs in the Oddar Meanchey province, the 39-year-old woman told how the families were forced off their land and beaten and harassed by local police.
“If we do not make progress with the National Assembly, we will die in front of the National Assembly,” she promised roughly 300 protesters gathered Monday from at least eight provinces.
The rally, organized by opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, proceeded despite an order issued by the municipal government forbidding the gathering.
Police flanked the group’s perimeter but did not interfere with activities.
Meanwhile, protesters of all ages from Banteay Meanchey, Oddar Meanchey, Siem Reap, Takeo, Koh Kong, Kompong Cham, Kompong Speu and Prey Veng cautioned that alleged land grabs by government officials are creating irreconcilable disputes in the countryside.
“They said we were living on soldiers’ land. But that land is ours. This is an injustice for the villagers,” said Meas Somaly.
The protesters’ demands came in the form of a draft law on agrarian reform, penned by the Sam Rainsy Party and delivered by its leader to National Assembly officials on Monday.
In it, Sam Rainsy urged that state property be sold through fair and public bidding and said that “land must belong to the farmers who work and live on it.”
Monday’s protesters had been assured that National Assembly and Senate members would meet with them, but Sam Rainsy received a cold reaction when he presented the draft law to the Assembly, where he holds a minority of seats. “I think the National Assembly is making a habit of snubbing Sam Rainsy’s position,” said Py Thach, head of The Sam Rainsy Party cabinet.
Since the country transformed from a communist state, provincial land ownership in the provinces has been a sticking point between villagers and government employees, as little formal proof exists of who owns which parcels. The government has been working on revamping the land law for months.
Chhum Kanal, secretary of a land-dispute committee assembled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, assured that his group would meet with the governor of Oddar Meanchey today to try to resolve land disputes there.
He warned, however, that state visits to several provinces proved many villagers have claimed land illegally.
“Right now, the government must find a sound solution to satisfy both sides,” he said.
A number of protesters said after the rally they feared retaliation when they returned to their villages. But Sam Rainsy assured they would be taken care of if they stayed in the National Assembly lawn.
“I would feel sad if they came here for nothing,” he said as he left the protest.
“We have asked the people of Phnom Penh to provide them assistance so they can stay on….
“They must have assurance that they have land when they go back home,” he said.