Hundreds of armed police and military police yesterday violently clashed with more than 200 irate villagers from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community and tore down their homes with bulldozers. After years of struggle with the company Phanimex, which is owned by wealthy businesswoman Suy Sophan, villagers threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at armed forces, who fought back with rubber bullets, tear gas and rocks. Villagers and police said that at least 30 protestors and 34 police officers were injured during the fighting, which at times resembled a war zone. At least eight protestors detained by police were still in custody as of yesterday evening.
“We will protest until we die on our land if there is no solution for us,” said Seng Kong, a Borei Keila community representative. “If we do not have a house, where can we live?”
Yesterday’s violence was the latest in a long string of protests by members of the community, who were promised new accommodation in return for giving their land to Phanimex in 2003.
The company had promised to build 10 apartment blocks to house the 1,776 affected families, but ended up building only eight, leaving more than 300 families still at the Borei Keila site with no housing resettlement plan.
A dozen human rights groups released a joint statement condemning the violence and accused the government authorities of abusing housing rights.
“Clearly land-grabbing and forced evictions in Cambodia will not disappear in 2012, and the situation for people at risk of eviction will probably get worse,” said Tep Vanny, a member of the League of Boeng Kak Lake Women Struggling For Housing Rights, in a joint statement from rights groups. “The government should be helping and protecting the people, not assisting a company that does not respect its contractual agreement.”
Armed forces moved into the area near Olympic Stadium at around 8 am and fighting lasted until around midday, when villagers pulled back and a bulldozer weaved around the settlement, knocking down homes one by one, leaving in its wake weeping villagers trying to pick out clothes and other belongings from heaps of brick, wood and metal as fires smoldered nearby.
Afterwards all that remained was a wasteland of rubble and refuse with smoke billowing into the sky from a mound of burning garbage. Bleeding villagers were seen tending to their wounds as students watched in astonishment behind windows at a nearby school.
Borei Keila community representative Sar Sorn, who had a gash on her jawbone and a bruise on her arm from being hit with stones, said that about 30 villagers, including some children, had been injured during the clash, and that most of the victims were receiving treatment at nearby clinics.
Municipal minor crimes bureau police chief Sung Ly said that eight villagers were taken into custody but that he did not know if they would be charged or released.
“We do not know what we are going to decide yet, we are waiting for their lawyer first,” Mr. Ly said.
Phnom Penh military police deputy commander Pong Savrith said 34 officers were injured, four of them seriously. He also said that it was not the police who initiated the fighting.
“Our authority did not throw rocks on villager, but villager threw rocks on police, […so] police threw back to protect themselves.”
Mr. Savrith also said that three of those to be arrested were recently returned soldiers from Preah Vihear temple and members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. All three men were later released, he said.
One of the first houses to be demolished was that of Pung Thavy, 36, who afterwards stood on top of her flattened home with tears running down her face.
“My family and I were about to die if we did not escape from the house,” she said. “I do not know where I am going to sleep tonight.”
“My family has documents from 2004, but we still do not receive an apartment and now they demolished my house,” she added.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who has been representing villagers in negotiations with Phanimex, said that the demolition should not have taken place until both sides had come to an agreement.
“I have met with the company and the people many times and they were supposed to negotiate case by case,” Ms. Sochua said. “This demolition is totally unacceptable-this is what we wanted to avoid.”
Phanimex chairwoman Suy Sophan said the company refused apartments to the villagers because they were living on the land illegally and decided to demolish homes after villagers resorted to violence.
“Villagers threw rocks at the authorities which causes injuries, so we decided to clear all the houses,” she said.
As the sun set over the Borei Keila community, villagers could be seen searching for their belongings in the heaps of rubble. Most said they would stay the night and some could be seen rebuilding their homes.
(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng)