The once unified fight of the Boeng Kak lake community against their forced eviction visibly fractured over the weekend, as factions within the community accused each other of literally casting the first stone in a brawl that broke out Saturday over a new military police base being built in their neighborhood.
The Daun Penh district military police confirmed last week that land being cleared in the Boeng Kak area was for their new headquarters, only meters away from the homes of some of Cambodia’s most high-profile anti-eviction activists, including Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha.
The activists accuse the government of placing the new military police base as a move to intimidate them. District military police chief Thorng Piseth has denied the charge and said the city simply chose a plot of land that was available.
Unconvinced, Ms. Vanny and a group of supporters went to the site to protest the base’s construction on Saturday, at which point they clashed with another group of Boeng Kak residents led by formerformer ally Heng Mom.
Rocks were thrown and activist Nget Khun, who is in her mid-70s, was left with a bruised forehead.
The two groups met at the site again Sunday but kept things to a shouting match, with insults tossed in both directions. Ms. Mom, equipped with a microphone and loudspeaker, was seen swinging her fist at Ms. Vanny’s group, but district security guards kept them apart.
By Sunday afternoon, Ms. Mom was seated peacefully on the site of her future home—immediately next to the police base—sharing a snack of fried beef and beer with the guards. She and five other Boeng Kak families struck a deal with the city just last week to give up their old homes in exchange for new plots nearby.
She said Saturday’s clash began because Ms. Vanny and her group started pulling up wooden posts marking the land, not just for the base but also for her own new plot beside it.
“I told them the land belongs to me because they measured it for me…so I have the right to stop them. I told them to stop, but they did not listen to me and they called more people to come,” Ms. Mom said.
“They tried to pull out my boundary posts. I did not hit them, I just pushed them off my land. They threw rocks at me, then I reacted.”
Ms. Mom said she personally asked police to build a base in Boeng Kak, not to intimidate the neighborhood activists, she insisted, but to better combat the area’s criminals and drug dealers. She showed reporters a letter she wrote to municipal police on April 17.
“I don’t think this base is to intimidate activists because most of the villagers support the base because they [the police] will provide security for the village,” she said.
When the government first started evicting families from the neighborhood in 2008 to make way for what was supposed to be CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s high-end real estate project, Ms. Mom and Ms. Vanny were close allies, often protesting side by side.
Ms. Vanny finally won a title to her home in 2012 in a deal personally engineered by Prime Minister Hun Sen that let more than 600 families keep their homes. Ms. Mom was one of a few dozen left out of the deal, but told reporters after last year’s national elections that she had struck a deal with the ruling CPP, promising to vote for the party in exchange for a title of her own. It was at about the same time that she stopped joining the community protests.
On Sunday, Ms. Mom said she split from the group because of Ms. Vanny’s open support for the opposition during the elections. She denied telling reporters that she had struck a deal with the CPP for her land title.
Sitting under the tin awning of her home just meters away from Ms. Mom’s land, Ms. Vanny denied pulling any posts out of the ground on Saturday and said it was Ms. Mom’s group that started throwing rocks.
“We did not pull any posts out of Heng Mom’s land,” Ms. Vanny said. “We just tried to stop the building of the base, and Heng Mom tried to protect the base.”
Ms. Khun, who often finds herself injured or at least exhausted from her protesting, was seated beside Ms. Vanny with a bandage above her right eyebrow and another on the back of her right hand.
“A small rock hit my right eyebrow while I was trying to ask construction workers to stop building a fence for the military police base, but I don’t know who threw it,” she said.
Ms. Vanny said she was actually happy for her old ally, Ms. Mom, for finally getting her hard-fought land title, but would keep protesting against the new base until 40 other families still waiting for titles got their land as well.
While the two groups have been split since last year’s election, Saturday’s clash was the first time their feud had turned violent.
As for the new base, construction workers have already started preparing the foundations for the building. Some 50 military police were called to the scene Sunday morning to protect the workers from the protesters.