Police in Phnom Penh detained two Boeng Kak lake residents yesterday following an apparent breakdown in negotiations between City Hall and some 1,500 lakeside families who are set to lose their homes to a CPP senator’s development project.
Since April, the two sides have been in talks over what sort of on-site housing the families would receive as compensation. Though a June 3 letter from Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema putting the offer in writing did not specify what sort of housing they would get, most kept pushing for 4-by-16-meter ground-floor apartment blocks.
Yesterday morning, however, residents received a letter from the city officially rejecting their request, bringing more than 100 of them out to protest.
The city wants to relocate the evictees in stacked apartments, but families say this would prevent them from running the ground-floor shops many depend on.
After handing officials at the British Embassy a written request for help, the protesters started marching south along Monivong Boulevard toward City Hall. However, police and security guards blocked them on Daun Penh district deputy governor Sok Penhvuth’s orders before they could arrive.
“If you still go [to City Hall], we will take measures,” he told the crowd. “It is affecting public order.”
After a 40-minute standoff, Mr Penhvuth finally invited nine of the protesters to join him at City Hall for talks. But as the nine headed off, they received a telephone call from the other protesters who said police had started pushing them back. As they turned back to help, Non Sokheng and Tep Vanny were arrested.
“Our people just wanted City Hall to explain the letter but we were stopped on the way by riot police and public order officers,” said Tol Sreypeou, one of the protesters. “They stopped us and cracked down on us like animals.”
As the standoff dragged into the afternoon, district police chief Hun Sothy arrived and told villagers that Ms Sokheng and Ms Vanny would be released no later than 4 pm.
Police either could not be reached afterward or declined to comment. But by 6 pm, Ms Sreypeou said the pair had still not been released.
The letter received yesterday followed months of negotiation.
Addressing their requests, it said, “City Hall cannot offer it because it contradicts the notice dated Sept 15, 2008 from the government of Cambodia”
The 2008 notice proposed on-site housing for the families but placed restrictions on what it might look like.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director at the Housing Rights Task Force, said the letter might not be a true rejection of the families’ requests but a matter of tough bargaining.
“This letter may mean they [city officials] still agree to on-site development but they want to offer them smaller houses,” he said. “They are worried they will lose profit if they offer big houses. They think about the business rather than the people.”
City Hall granted CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s Shukaku Inc a 99-year lease to the lake and its shores in 2007. In 2010, it partnered with a Chinese firm to form Shukaku Erdos Hongjun Property Development.
Boeng Kak lake protests have been marred by arrests and violence before.
In March, security forces scuffled with hundreds of lake residents gathered in front of City Hall to demand a meeting with the governor. One woman said officers knocked her unconscious while forcing her into a waiting police van. The UN human rights office helped secure her release later that day.
In April, security forces detained nine Boeng Kak lake residents in a clash with protesters outside City hall that left a 71-year-old woman with a bleeding head wound.
Phnom Penh police released the nine the next day after they thumbprinted apology letters admitting they lobbed rocks and urine at police before the scuffle, though a reporter at the scene saw no evidence of either. The released protesters afterwards said they were coerced into making false statements.
City officials could not be reached.