Opposition Leader’s Visit Cheers Land Protesters

Garbage litters the ground. Flies swarm overhead.

The 300 or so people from all over Cambodia protesting in the Phnom Penh park live day to day, subsiding on rice and water do­nated by NGOs at uneven intervals.

They share a handful of toilets and bathe infrequently. Residents of the tent city say all the infants, whose cries can be heard from the street, have fallen ill.

But Hul Manith is hopeful.

After opposition leader Sam Rainsy came Saturday morning to the park opposite the National As­sembly, where hundreds of pro­­vincial villagers have camped out to protest land-grabbing, the 50-year-old Sihanoukville woman said she is confident land disputes across the country will be re­solved.

“If Samdech Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy work together, 100 percent of the people in land disputes will have a solution,” she said on Sun­day, sitting on a mat scattered with maps, land documents and pho­tographs of her former home in Mittapheap district’s Boun com­mune.

“Justice will come very soon after a compromise…. Not only for the land-grab issue, but for the whole country as well.”

As land disputes have in­creased, this park in central Phnom Penh has become a desti­n­a­tion for those who have ex­hausted all other avenues for help with land disputes.

Despite the boost Sam Rainsy’s visit had on morale, Hul Manith is weary after two months spent living in the park.

The squalid conditions in the park are ignored by officials, who say they are not responsible for the protesters’ well being and plan to offer no aid.

“What did these provincial governors do?” asked Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema, adding that the park and its inhabitants have become an eyesore and harm­ful to the image of the city he wants to project.

“Let’s ask the provincial governors what they did to cause those people to arrive in Phnom Penh,” Kep Chuktema said.

Reached by phone on Sunday, Sam Rainsy, who returned from self-imposed exile in Paris on Fri­day, said his visit to the park was merely to gather information about land disputes to share with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sam Rainsy said he made no promises. “I told them that the Sam Rainsy Party will always support the cause for justice, so they must keep up hope,” he said.

He added that he and Prime Min­ister Hun Sen would continue to examine the issue.

“Maybe they misunderstood,” said Sam Rainsy of comments by the villagers that he had pro­mised to resolve their disputes.

Others were skeptical that a solution would be found.

“I think [officials] have to say something good to get [the protesters] to go back,” said Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc.

“It is important for [officials] to see the suffering, but I don’t know how much they can help,” he added

Nevertheless, villagers on Sunday said they refused to be deterred.

“We will not leave until we have a resolution,” said 45-year-old Yann Siphan, reading a newspaper in the shade and listening to a radio. “I will struggle and fight all obstacles, even if I have to sleep here in the rain and bad weather. I will try my best to get my land back.”

He said he and 66 others from Kompong Speu province have been living in the park for three months, after soldiers said they needed land that 110 families had cultivated for 14 years.

“It’s hard to speak about. We suf­fer in every way—we have little food, water to drink and to wash with, even to go to the toilet,” Yann Siphan said.

Like Hul Manith, he said Sam Rainsy’s visit had buoyed his spirit. “I have much hope about what Sam Rainsy promised, because the political situation in Cambodia is getting better,” Yann Siphan said.

“He promised a resolution would be passed,” he said.

“He pro­m­ised that he would not allow people to con­tinue living here. He prom­ised that people will get their land back, with land titles.”


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