When he assumed leadership of Phnom Penh municipality in May 2013, Pa Socheatvong vowed to be a governor who would get things done.
His predecessor, Kep Chuktema, oversaw the filling in of Boeng Kak lake and the mass eviction of its residents. A similar scenario unfolded in the Borei Keila area of Prampi Makara district and several other areas of the city during Mr. Chuktema’s 10-year tenure as municipal governor.
Newly promoted from his deputy governor post, Mr. Socheatvong pledged at his inauguration ceremony last year to be a new type of municipal leader.
He vowed, at that time, “to continue to solve the remaining problems such as public order and traffic problems, environment and green city problems, infrastructure—especially roads, drainage and clean water problems—and some remaining land disputes such as the Boeng Kak lake area, the Borei Keila area and the Thma Korl community and reservoirs.”
Over the past 10 months, however, land disputes have continued unabated and unresolved.
Last week a rally was held outside City Hall by Borei Keila and Boeng Kak community representatives who reiterated their long-held calls for justice and recognition of their land rights.
At the area formerly known as Boeng Kak lake, community representatives say there are still more land titles that must be handed to residents who refuse to move. At Borei Keila, a fetid tent alley at the back of a set of apartment blocks is home to about 100 families who never received replacement housing after agreeing to vacate their homes for a private construction project.
Residents from both communities continue to rally on the streets of Phnom Penh.
At the time of Mr. Socheatvong’s promotion, Sia Phearum, director of land rights NGO Housing Rights Task Force, said he was not confident that the new governor’s promises were anything more than slogans ahead of the July national election.
Today, Mr. Phearum remains largely unconvinced that there is any drive in the new municipal administration to see these long-running disputes settled once and for all.
“We used to meet with him [Mr. Socheatvong] a few times among NGOs working with Boeng Kak lake and Borei Keila and he promised he was committed to solving the problem, especially these two cases,” Mr. Phearum said last week.
“But it’s still prolonged,” he said, adding that Mr. Socheatvong inherited problems from his predecessor, Mr. Chuktema, that are not easy to solve.
Mr. Chuktema “made a lot of big things, so there were big problems for [Mr. Socheatvong] to solve quickly,” he said.
Notable during the new governor’s tenure is a heavy-handed approach to peaceful protesters, Mr. Phearum said, adding, “He is more strict on public gatherings and protests.”
During his tenure, blue-uniformed, extra-legal security guards and plainclothes, civilian thugs have violently beaten workers, unionists, rights activists, opposition party supporters and journalists. They attacked participants during a candlelit vigil at Wat Phnom in September and violently emptied Freedom Park of monks and peaceful opposition party supporters in January.
Riot police and armed military police are now a common sight on Phnom Penh’s streets, while seven people have been shot dead in the city by security forces since July’s contested election. On January 3, five strike protesters where gunned down and more than 40 wounded when hundreds of military police officers were deployed to Veng Sreng Street to crush garment strikes.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the city had done its best to handle eviction issues.
“We started to solve the Boeng Kak lake issue step by step and our working group has already finished surveying the areas for them and measuring the land—we have solved the problem for 17 families in the past week and we continue to solve it,” he said
“For Borei Keila, we have already completed our work and we are just waiting for the temporary shelters for them, and to see how many families will take the temporary shelters or not.”
He also insisted that crackdowns were necessary due to increasingly “extremist” protesters wreaking havoc on city streets.
“It is not that when he came to power the crackdowns began, it is that since he came to office, the anarchy has taken place,” Mr. Dimanche added.
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