After Another Violent Protest, Tentative Agreement for Borei Keila

Following their fourth protest in as many weeks, residents of Phnom Penh’s displaced Borei Keila community yesterday reached a tentative housing agreement with development firm Phanimex, company and village representatives said yesterday.

The meeting came after a protest yesterday morning in which more than 100 residents clashed, at times violently, with at least 50 military police, riot police and police armed with batons and riot shields.

Demonstrating in front of Prampi Makara district Governor Som Sovan’s office, the protesters–most of whom were women–burned incense sticks and set out offerings to the spirits, praying for an end to their long-standing land dispute. The protesters then moved on to Street 169, blocking traffic for more than an hour while demanding that the powerful construction firm Phanimex, abide by an agreement to provide them with onsite housing at Borei Keila as promised by the firm in 2003.

As police attempted to push the protesters back from the street, the demonstration turned violent at moments. One resident had to get stitches after receiving a blow to the head, allegedly from a police baton. Three others sustained minor injuries on their heads and arms.

“I came to protest legally and without violence,” said Choek San, 44. Her head wound freshly stitched closed, Ms San returned to the demonstration. “The authorities intended to push me, and then used a baton to hit me when I fell.”

Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth denied the claims of police violence, saying his officers only pushed people back to prevent a traffic jam.

“They just used [riot] shields to push them from the road because if they block the road it is illegal. They can protest but not block the road,” Mr Naruth said, adding that there would be no further investigation into the allegations of violence.

Tentatively, however, the protesting appeared to have paid off by yesterday afternoon.

During a meeting attended by three representatives of the residents and SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua, Phanimex chairwoman Suy Sophan offered an agreement that paved the way for the hundreds of families facing eviction to be granted onsite housing.

“We’ve asked them to draw up a list of the residents,” Ms Sophan said by phone later.

“The company agreed to provide onsite housing to villagers who have enough documents to prove resident ownership,” she said.

Three other groups–including those who own property but don’t have sufficient documentation, those who can prove they are renters at the site, and those who rent but cannot prove it-will be provided for as well, though details have not yet been hammered out for those groups.

The meeting marked the first such negotiation between residents and Phanimex, and Ms Sochua said she was cautiously optimistic. Ms Sochua said the fact the registration list would be prepared by the residents, rather than the company, was a major step forward.

“At least, for today, we have come to an agreement. Today, we have met with the company for the first time. I think it is a positive outcome for today. I want to be hopeful and make this assessment for each step of the way,” she said.

At a conference held after the meeting with Phanimex, Borei Keila residents cheered as Ms Sochua outlined the meeting’s outcome. But on the sidelines, many were less than optimistic.

“They already had a list of residents from before the project was even proposed,” said Sok Soeurn, 50. “If they had just used that list, everyone would have gotten property already.”

(Additional reporting by Abby Seiff)


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