poipet town – When law enforcement officials starting tearing down her small house here on the morning of June 23, Lei Keang complained bitterly.
As the 57-year-old woman resisted the destruction of her home, the military policemen fired several warning shots into the ground, injuring her right toe.
Then Lei Keang and her daughter were handcuffed and sent to the Banteay Meanchey provincial prison, along with four neighbors.
“We just complained about why they forcibly tear down our house and only told people we want to stay further. And we got arrested and sent to this prison,” said Lei Keang, looking through the bars of her malodorous prison cell.
“I don’t know why we are jailed like this. We only complained to [stay on] the land,’’ she said. “We are innocent people. It’s very unjust.”
Lei Keang and her daughter are the only women imprisoned in a dispute over a 3-hectare plot of land in Poipet where approximately 955 families had lived. The six arrested June 23 joined three others who had been arrested previously.
All are protesting a ruling by the Banteay Meanchey court evicting them from the land, and giving it to military officers and business people. For two Saturdays, about 1,000 protesters demonstrated, putting Thai border soldiers on alert.
The first protest closed the border for several days. It has since been reopened. Officials say they have provided other land for those displaced by the court ruling, but those evicted say that land is too far away and has not yet been cleared of land mines.
The story told by Lei Keang was echoed by others, both in the prison and among families still living on the disputed land. So far, none of the six arrested in the first wave of evictions has been tried in court.
Many witnesses and local non-governmental organization workers said the jailing of those evicted appeared to violate their human rights.
Both those evicted and those facing eviction said they feel very intimidated, noting that even during interviews, police and military police stayed near. The Cambodia Daily was not allowed to take photographs of the destroyed houses. Many said they don’t want to leave the land because they have nowhere to go.
Sok Chantra, 25, had just delivered her third son the night before the eviction. “I don’t know where to go to live now because it’s the rainy season,’’ she said. “It’s bad for me and my son.”
She and her baby spend the nights at a health center nearby because they do not have a proper tent to sleep under.
She said she was so frightened by the eviction and gunfire that she fell ill.
Nhim Mengly, a 36-year-old widow and mother of five, said she doesn’t know where to go. She said she saved money for many years to build the house that was destroyed.
Snguon Sante, the officer for Poipet-based Cambodian Association for the Development of the Handicapped, said the eviction was unnecessarily violent and the dispute could be solved peacefully if authorities would cooperate with NGOs and families.
The heavy-handedness had taken a small problem and made it into a big one, he said. “In fact, we can work it out. Most families would agree to move out if “proper land” was found, he said, and asked that they be given three months’ notice.
Sok Khoeun, deputy chief of Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrov district, said they were given 15 days notice, by letter and TV.
“How can the poor find cable TV to watch?” Snguon Sante asked.
The new owners of the land include Heng Sorn, Tou Hok, and 13 other people. District officials would not say what the two men do, or who the other 13 are.
Sok Khoeun, deputy chief of the O’Chrov District, said authorities have located an alternative site of 100 hectares, 10 km northeast of Poipet. He said evicted families can move in as soon as the land is cleared of mines.
But many families said in addition to the mines, the land is out of the way, making it harder for them to make money.
“Riding [motorbike taxis] to and from that place to here would cost me 70 baht when I only made about 20 baht a day. So how can we live?” said the widow, Nhim Mengly.
The Poipet prisoners were visited Wednesday by a parliamentary delegation led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy who donated 10,000 riels to each prisoner.
During the 10-minute visit, the delegation managed to ask prisoners some questions, but was not allowed to take photographs.
The prisoners asked Sam Rainsy to seek justice for them, because all they did was complain about the eviction.
“Don’t worry, I come here to protect you. I am your representative,” he told prisoners through the cell window.
Then the delegation went to Poipet to meet about 300 evicted villagers. They arrived in the muddy border town at around 3 pm and Sam Rainsy led them in an hour-long protest.
“We are on your side. I can’t stay in comfort to see you in such terrible living. I will help seek justice for you,” he said.
He lambasted the government for its handling of the dispute, accusing it of evicting people so the land could be developed for casinos and drug laboratories.