On Thursday morning, the residents of Borei Keila were a picture of peaceful protest. Clustered in a small group on a grassy bank next to the U.S. Embassy, the villagers took turns thumb-printing a document they would later deliver to a number of embassies. It was a marked about-face from 48 hours earlier, when the residents took a stand against the armed forces who had arrived to set about demolishing their homes. Faced with imminent eviction, more than 200 Borei Keila residents took up arms and sought vengeance.
Here was a woman, clad in pajamas and flip-flops, wielding a club at fully armed riot police. Here was a teenager aiming his slingshot toward a scrum of officers. Here were the Molotov cocktails, the bricks, the detritus that moments before were being hurled en masse by women and men, children and the elderly, into a sea of shields.
Though violent protests and evictions are nothing new – the 2009 eviction of the Dey Krahorm community in Phnom Penh, for instance, resulted in at least 18 injuries – the reaction from those being targeted is.
The past year saw no less than a half-dozen protests featuring violent retaliation from demonstrators.
From garment factory demonstrations to protests led by Boeng Kak lake villagers, there is an increasing willingness by those aggrieved to match violence with violence, rights workers, observers and analysts said this week.
“The level of desperation is pushing them further and further. This is the manifestation,” said SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who had been helping Borei Keila residents broker a deal with the Cambodian conglomerate Phanimex prior to this week’s ugly eviction.
“Violence is never the answer… but when you really have no other choice, you need to stay alive,” she added.
The cases have been mounting. The Borei Keila eviction in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district this week was just the latest on a growing list of increasingly hostile protests.
Boeng Kak lake residents spent much of 2011 staging a series of heated protests against the actions of authorities attempting to evict them from their homes. That culminated, in November, with a demonstration in which one resident cut her own wrist while others hurled rocks and urine-soaked garments at police.
Rights groups say that the occurrences of more violent protests is the result of increasingly draconian tactics being employed by authorities.
In late April, 200 Boeng Kak lake residents who arrived at City Hall asking for help resolving their land dispute were met with an equal number of police. A scuffle broke out leaving several bloody and beaten, including a 71-year-old woman who bled from the head.
At another Boeng Kak protest in March, a woman claimed she was knocked unconscious while being dragged into a police van. The same month, workers protesting the severance package awarded by the shuttered Tack Fat garment factory claimed police hit demonstrators with electric batons.
Authorities meanwhile appear to be at a loss, insisting they cannot be directly blamed for the level of violence being employed by the police.
“If there’s no violence, the Ministry would appreciate it,” said Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry. When asked whether the Ministry had marked an uptick in violent demonstrations Lt Gen Sopheak demurred but noted, “In Cambodia, we have a saying: one hand alone cannot make noise.”
Rights groups, however, blasted the government for pushing protesters to such extremes.
“No one wants to resort to violence and put him or herself in harm’s way, but if violence becomes increasingly common in anti-eviction protests, it only reflects both the sense of desperation of the evictees and the widespread and irreversible nature of evictions, which feed into one another in a vicious cycle of tension in Cambodia,” explained Shiwei Ye, an Asean representative at the Bangkok-based International Federation for Human Rights.
If the violence is borne of desperation, it also represents a lack of confidence that the justice system is anywhere near capable of resolving people’s grievances through the proper legal channels, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“These protesters are taking matters into their own hands because they have lost hope in any sort of justice from the corrupted legal system and courts that are complicit with the rich and powerful people behind these land seizures,” he said in an email.
“Facing displacement and the effective destruction of their economic and social lives, not to mention the tearing apart their communities, these people obviously have come to the conclusion that they have little other choice than violence.”
But where many see desperation and a breakdown of the system, some see the escalating violence as a symbol of democratic processes struggling to the fore.
Engaging in violence could be construed as citizens becoming more aware of their fundamental rights. It also proves that people are beginning to stand up to those in power.
“We can’t overlook that people are more and more out of patience,” said independent analyst Chea Vannath, “but I still maintain that if we lived in an absolute dictatorial country, people might not dare to do it.”
“Cambodia is moving slowly toward a democratic stage and the protesters are really challenging the authorities. They are forcing the government and the authorities to find a peaceful solution… to be more accountable.”