One day after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned against the use of violence in land disputes, six women protestors from the Borei Keila and Boeng Kak communities were violently packed into a police van yesterday after municipal authorities blocked them from marching on Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard. The protest, which started peacefully, escalated at around 11 am when about 100 residents from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community, who were violently evicted from their homes last month, gathered with around 50 residents from the Boeng Kak lake area at City Hall to demand that authorities address their ongoing land dispute grievances.
More than 100 riot police who had created a barricade with their shields, prevented the protestors, who have now been protesting for weeks, from walking along Monivong Boulevard, resulting in violence breaking out.
Several women took off their bras and walked around bare chest as they threw water bottles at police. Others broke off branches from a nearby tree and swung them at police, who pushed back with their shields, while the municipality’s security guards hit the irate women with their fists during several bouts of fighting.
The police and security guards eventually threw five of the female protestors from the Borei Keila community and one from Boeng Kak lake into a parked police van.
“They grabbed me like pig or an animal and threw me inside the prison van and my head hit the car wall,” said Ath Samnang, 28, a Borei Keila villager, who spoke from inside the municipal police station yesterday afternoon where she was detained. “The whole of my body and my head hurt.”
Sung Ly, chief of the municipal minor crimes police, declined to comment when asked about the violence and the detained women, as did municipal police chief Touch Naruth, who was in Singapore.
During the confrontation, Phoung Malai, deputy municipal police chief, was heard ordering police to arrest the protestors. “Surround them completely, push them, arrest them and take them to the municipal police station,” he said.
Yesterday’s violence was just the latest confrontation between the land dispute protestors and government authorities.
On Jan. 3 armed forces evicted around 300 families from Borei Keila on land that has been purchased by Phanimex, which is owned by the politically well-connected, wealthy business woman Suy Sophan.
Along with Ms. Samnang, Borei Keila villagers Seng Kunthea, 34, Seng Rany, 36, Tom Sakmony, 63, Nen Sarith, 38, were detained yesterday with Boeng Kak villager Srang Srey Tuch, 38, who was protesting yesterday to demand the municipality pay for repairs to her home at the site where she was relocated after being evicted from the lake area. All six women were still detained as of late last night.
Four of the detained Borei Keila protestors were part of a group of 30 women and children detained for one week at the Prey Speu Social Affairs Center following a similar protest at City Hall last month, said Long Kimheang, a representative for the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF).
“We monitored the protest and found that local authorities and Phnom Penh municipal authorities have no capacity to solve the problem-they just know how to beat people and arrest people,” said Sia Phearum, secretary general of HRTF.
Mr. Phearum added that the escalation of violence in land disputes is undermining the credibility of Mr Hun Sen, who gave a speech on Tuesday warning against the use of force in land disputes.
“I think they also disrespect the Prime Minister,” Mr. Phearum said.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua called on Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema to seek solutions to both land disputes.
“This is a total culture of impunity, no use of force by the police is justified and the governor hasn’t even come to address this,” Ms Sochua said. “He’s been hiding for too long, and who is allowing him to hide-the Prime Minister.”
Senior CPP lawmaker and defacto ruling party spokesman Cheam Yeap said the authorities had no right to detain land dispute protestors.
“Villagers have rights for protesting and the authorities had no right to arrest them,” he said.
Im Srey Moni, 32, another Borei Keila villager who escaped detention as the women were bundled into the van, said that many of the protestors had been injured.
“These actions are crueler than the Pol Pot regime,” she said as she pointed to a small bloody gash on her head. “We will continue protesting, we are not scared.”
(Additional reporting by Phok Dorn)