Security forces in Phnom Penh beat a 71-year-old woman bloody and detained several others yesterday while violently dispersing a crowd of Boeng Kak lake residents peacefully protesting their pending evictions in the face of a CPP senator’s development project.
One human rights group called the crackdown “a new low” in the years-long dispute.
The protesters, who numbered more than 200, were met by at least as many police, military police and public order officers, some wielding shields and electric batons, when they arrived outside City Hall shortly after 8 am. The protesters had come to ask that the city make the firm filling in the lake, Shukaku Erdos Hongjun Property Development, stop its sand pumps to let recent floodwaters recede.
Apparently exasperated, Keut Chhe, the city’s deputy director of administration, came out to meet the crowd shortly after 9 am.
“Why are you here?” he said. “I already told you that the request you submitted before Khmer New Year was received and we will hold a meeting next week.”
The protesters had asked for a meeting with governor Kep Chuktema.
“If you want to request a halt to the sand pumping, please make an official request and go back home,” Mr Chhe said. “If you don’t go, we will have to use administrative measures.”
Embittered by past requests that have all gone ignored, the protesters held their ground. About 15 minutes later, security forces moved in, forcing the crowd back with riot shields.
Municipal intervention police could be seen pushing and pulling at least nine people into waiting vans, though rights groups put the number as high as 12, including two children.
Those who tried to stop them were beaten.
When 71-year-old Nget Khun tried pulling a neighbor out of a scrum of police, she said an officer struck her in the arm and head, leaving a visible gash to her forehead.
“They are very cruel,” she said. “They hit me even though I am an old woman.”
Nuon Kimlorn, 38, said she momentarily blacked out when struck on the back with an electric baton.
“They make us suffer more brutally than Pol Pot,” she said. “We only protest to protect our homes but they used electric batons and shields on us. It was the worst.”
City Hall granted CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku Inc a 99-year lease to the lake and its shores in 2007, slating 4,000 mostly poor families for eviction. Human rights workers say this robbed the untitled residents of their claim to the land.
Contacted yesterday by telephone, municipal police chief Touch Naruth, who watched over the morning’s violence, declined to comment.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he had not heard of the protest and referred questions to National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith, who could not be reached.
Human rights groups expressed outrage.
In a statement, the Housing Rights Task Force called on “the leading authority figures that ordered and oversaw this morning’s violence against peaceful protesters to be suspended and investigated.”
Task Force director Sia Phearum later singled out Mr Naruth and Mr Chhe.
“The police arrested the people without any reason,” he said.
Rights group Adhoc issued a statement condemning the violence and saying that the police actions were unconstitutional and called for an investigation.
“Adhoc considers this violence as against human rights guarantied by the constitution and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” the statement said.
Lake resident Kit Sitha, who followed the detainees to police headquarters, said the two children, aged 11 and 13, had been released by yesterday afternoon but that nine women remained in custody.
“We are waiting for the release of our people,” she said. “If they don’t release our people…we will stay in front of the headquarters.”
Mr Phearum, of the Housing Rights Task Force, said he had been informed by the UN’s local human rights office that it had negotiated the detainees’ release for this morning.
But James Heenan, the office’s deputy director, said such an agreement had not yet been reached and talks with authorities were continuing.
“We are talking to city and police officials to try and make sure this does not derail ongoing negotiations between villagers and the government,” he said.
Mr Heenan also confirmed protesters’ reports that the UN had taken out and returned one detainee for medical attention to an injured thumb.
If uncommonly violent, the morning’s melee was not a first the lake residents.
It mirrors a March 25 scuffle in front of City Hall when more than 100 security agents met a crowd of lake residents hundreds strong demanding a meeting with the governor. One woman said officers knocked her unconscious while forcing her into a waiting police van. The UN human rights office helped secure her release later that day.
On Wednesday, lake residents were protesting outside Government Palace, where the country’s foreign donors were meeting with top government officials about the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid they pour into Cambodia.
Donors appear to be listening. World Bank Country Manager Qimiao Fan told the meet that the lake protests typified Cambodia’s crisis of land tenure.
In January, after an independent investigation found that a Bank-funded project helped strip lake residents of their land rights, the country team even raised the prospect of cutting back on future aid unless the government did more to help evictees.