Frustrated Protesters Take Over Street After Meeting Broken Up

Residents from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake area demonstrating against their pending evictions briefly clashed yesterday with Daun Penh district government security guards who appeared to direct a pair of random cars into a crowd of more than 100 peaceful protesters.

The protesters, demanding titles to their homes around Boeng Kak lake, were blocking traffic on Sihanouk Boulevard when police directing traffic around Independence Monument allowed two passing cars to enter. The security guards then pushed protesters away to make way for the vehicles.

“They ordered the cars to crash into us,” said Kong Chantha, one of the protesters. “Their actions are very brutal. They used violence on the people.”

No one appeared to be injured in the incident.

District police chief Hun Sothy hung up on a reporter requesting comment. Deputy district police chief Em Saroeun said he was unaware of the incident.

The Boeng Kak lake residents had blocked eastbound traffic on Sihanouk Boulevard for about two hours after local authorities allegedly broke up a peaceful indoor meeting nearby.

Lake residents said they had paid $450 to book a space at the National Institute of Education, just northwest of the monument, to discuss their next move in their ongoing dispute with the city and Shukaku Inc. City Hall granted the private construction firm a 99-year lease to the lake area in 2007 and slated some 4,000 families for eviction.

But soon after convening their meeting at around 8 am, villagers said, a mixed force of regular and military police arrived and ordered them to leave.

Ly Mom, a lakeside resident who attended the meeting, said Srah Chak commune chief Chhay Thirith personally urged the group to disband.

“Commune chief Chhay Thirith went into the meeting hall,” she said afterwards. “He asked us, ‘Why do you come here? Why don’t you meet me at the commune? Who allowed you to hold the meeting here?… Then he ordered us to cancel the meeting and he also ordered the school to close the door. The school allowed us to hold the meeting, but he disturbed us.”

Mr Thirith denied the account.

“I did not ban them from holding the meeting,” he said. “I don’t have authority there. It is the school’s right.”

For its part, the institute said the villagers’ request to meet at the center was never formally approved.

“The request letter has not reached to school director,” said Rath Huot, the institute’s deputy director. “The administration probably approved it without permission from the director; this is the mistake of the administration.”

In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, however, the Housing Rights Task Force insisted that the government pressured the institute into ending the meeting.

Villagers then attempted to reconvene their meeting at the nearby Chamkar Mon hospital. But according to HRTF, Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema called the hospital to keep them out.

The governor could not be reached for comment.

HRTF Secretary-General Sia Phearum called the villagers’ thwarted efforts to meet a violation of their right to assembly.

“Disrupting the meeting this morning was entirely unjustified,” he said in a statement. “The authorities need to respect human rights, including the freedom to assembly, which is enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution and international human rights standards. The people have the right to organize a meeting.”

Without a proper venue, and allegedly barred from marching back to Boeng Kak lake, the frustrated villagers took over the eastbound lane of Sihanouk Boulevard near the monument. Shortly after 11, dozens of police officers wielding riot shields and batons began herding the crowd toward Wat Botum. Once there, a representative of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet, Kong Chamroeun, urged the villagers to file a formal complaint.

Villagers say they have filed numerous complaints with all levels of government which have all been ignored, but agreed to do so again.

            (Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)



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