Over the past year, Phnom Penh officials have proven themselves to be an unyielding group in the face of dissent, and the helmeted, baton-wielding security guards who answer to them the scourge of protesters.
On Wednesday, however, Daun Penh district officials took a softer approach when villagers from Kompong Chhnang province’s Lor Peang town—who are in Phnom Penh in order to bring attention to their land dispute with the KDC company—attempted to march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to deliver a petition.
“I just want to tell you that the boss is not allowing you to march,” district security chief Kim Vutha told the protesters. “We will rent you tuk-tuks. Therefore, you do not have to march, as this would cause a traffic jam.”
The offer was accepted and the villagers, who have been residing in the Boeng Kak neighborhood since walking to Phnom Penh from Kompong Chhnang two weeks ago, were transported to Wat Botum—near the prime minister’s home—for free.
“We took 12 tuk-tuks and each one charged us 30,000 riel [about $7.50]…. The Daun Penh security forces covered the expense,” said Lor Peang representative Khat Saruon.
“We wanted to march, but they said we could not, because it would cause a traffic jam. They offered tuk-tuks and we agreed,” she said.
The municipal government was similarly accommodating with villagers from Battambang province, who have been staying at Wat Chas in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district.
“The deputy governor [of Phnom Penh] visited us and gave us six sacks of rice, fish and vegetables,” said villager Mao Chan, whose community is embroiled in a decadelong land dispute.
“He told us that when he heard that we were coming to the city to find a solution for our land dispute, he asked the head monk to allow us to stay, but told us to leave our politics behind,” he said.
The Battambang villagers say their cries for help have been ignored by the provincial governor, Chan Sophal, who also allegedly asked them not to travel to Phnom Penh.
“We don’t believe [Mr. Sophal’s promise to help] and we have heard the authorities talk like this for 10 years and we still have no solution,” Mr. Chan said, adding that in addition to the food, Interior Ministry Secretary of State Sak Setha gave each villager 20,000 riel.
Kong Chamroeun, a secretary in Mr. Hun Sen’s Cabinet, said he would not deliver petitions directly to the prime minister, but rather to “the committee, and this committee will handle it. It is up to them.”
“There are people who hide [petitions]—I do not hide them,” he said.