Echoes of the violent eviction of hundreds of families from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community five years ago emanated on Tuesday from a protest held to mark the anniversary, as state security guards manhandled evictees who attempted to occupy a building on the site.
Prampi Makara district security guards dragged women down the building’s stairwell, seized their belongings and beat them as a scuffle ensued just outside the apartment block. One woman appeared to be left unconscious, though none sustained serious injuries.
On the same day in 2012, a violent clash erupted when military police and police confronted about 200 villagers who attempted to defend their land against a planned construction project by Phanimex, a firm owned by powerful businesswoman Suy Sophan.
In exchange for the 2.6 hectare plot in Borei Keila, Ms. Sophan promised to build 10 apartment buildings to house the 1,776 affected families. Only eight were constructed, however, before her company claimed bankruptcy.
More than 300 families were left without homes, and 140 were resettled on a rural strip of land in Kandal province’s Phnom Bat commune, where they have complained for years of squalid living conditions. Despite promises of improvements, they still lack clean water, electricity, schools and health care facilities.
Thirty-five of about 70 families still living there returned to the eviction area in the days leading up to Tuesday’s anniversary with the intent of moving into a building adjacent to the eight apartment blocks—an act of protest meant to secure further compensation from the government.
“I’ll go back if the government provides a better solution for us,” San Sarom, 32, said on Tuesday morning, hours after arriving from Kandal.
The group joined 10 families of former neighbors already living there in a peaceful anniversary ceremony in the morning. But as monks arrived to lead the group in prayer at about 9:30 a.m., district security guards poured in and broke up the event.
Officials immediately headed into the apartments, gathering wicker furniture and bags of clothing and dragging a group of women clinging to their belongings behind them. As they reached the stairs, however, the officials relented on clearing out items, instead beginning to thrust women down the stairs.
“You must go back to the place you have come from,” the guards yelled.
“We have no place to go,” a villager shouted back.
The group eventually reached the ground floor, where they bickered as about 30 riot police armed with batons and shields lined a narrow road leading up to the building.
“You must go back to your house. The Veal Vong commune office will not recognize you because you already moved to Phnom Bat,” commune chief Keo Sakal announced to the villagers as the tension subsided. “We have no right to let you stay here.”
Within an hour, riot police abandoned the scene.
At about 11:30 a.m., however, the situation escalated once more as the protesters attempted to re-enter the building. Guards flung belongings from the apartments and women were once again forcefully corralled down the stairs—this time yelling “Pol Pot!” at the guards they were resisting.
Prak Hak, the chief of the district security guards, told the women he would “rip your mouth out” as they hurled insults at his men.
After about 10 minutes of scuffling, Mr. Hak lunged toward activist Kim Sarann, pushing her into a tin wall, witnesses said. Several women, including Ms. Sarann, were then followed into the shops lining the ground floor of the buildings developed on their old land, where at least three women were injured.
“They beat me. They slapped my face and grabbed my collar to insult me with bad words,” Ms. Sarann said. “They beat and kicked us to the ground. They treated us like fugitives —instead, we are land victims and we are just demanding more compensation.”
One woman—later identified as Vong Chanthy, 30—was knocked unconscious after security guards thrust her against a cement wall. Ms. Chanthy was cared for by surrounding villagers.
After the clash, however, Mr. Hak denied the violence in front of reporters.
“This building belongs to the company and state,” he said. “We told them to leave here, but when we invited them to leave, they refused and we had no option but to force them to leave.”
“We did not beat them, but those people scratched and splashed fish sauce on me. They insulted my mother,” he added.
According to City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey, however, Mr. Hak had acted on an “individual argument” with Ms. Sarann, and would be called for questioning. Still, he said, the protesters are “not the room owners, and they have no right to occupy there.”
In the afternoon, Khieu Lai, a representative of the group who was involved in the feud, was called to the district governor’s office, where she was promised a response to their requests within three days if they returned to their homes in Kandal.
She agreed, she said, but added that the group “will be back after three days if they don’t respond to us.”