Villagers who face eviction due to the planned expansion of Phnom Penh International Airport spray-painted giant SOS messages on their rooftops Thursday morning in the hope of catching the eye of Prime Minster Hun Sen, who flew back from the 25th Asean Summit in Burma last night.
Members of the Thma Koul neighborhood in Pur Senchey district adjacent to the airport pulled a similar stunt when U.S. President Barack Obama flew into the capital for the 2012 summit.
Two years ago, armed police descended on the area and forced residents—who were informed in July 2012 that they would have to relocate—to remove the SOS messages, which were intended to make Mr. Obama aware of their pending evictions.
On Thursday afternoon, local authorities in Kakab commune set about expunging the spray-painted appeals from the corrugated-tin roofs, on which photographs of Mr. Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, had also been placed, said Kao Sovan, a representative of about 600 Thma Koul families.
“The Kakab commune chief came with his security guards to remove the pictures…and paint over the SOS letters,” he said.
But by nightfall, when the prime minister’s flight was due to touch down, the guards had managed to paint over just one of three rooftops bearing the international distress signal, which residents had rebranded to stand for “success is solidarity,” said Chray Nim, who masterminded the symbolic protest.
“After we had heard that Samdech [Hun Sen] went to the Asean meeting in Burma, we took the opportunity to display his picture with the SOS message to ask him to find a solution for us,” Mr. Nim said, adding that other forms of appeal had so far proved fruitless.
“We filed a petition on October 27, but we have not heard anything, so I don’t think it reached him, because local authorities do not want the prime minister to know about our issues since it will cause problems for them,” he said.
“When Samdech knows about this, there will be reasonable solution for our community.”
Kakab commune chief Sok El said he ordered his guards to paint over the SOS messages because they would draw negative attention to the community, just as Mr. Hun Sen was returning from the important diplomatic engagement.
“Why did they do this?” Mr. El said. “It creates a bad image for our commune, because our prime minister is returning from the Asean meeting in Burma, so we painted over their SOS and removed the photographs and handed them back to owner of the house.”