A tight line of police officers wielding shields and electric batons stood in front of Wat Botum yesterday blocking a 200-strong crowd of protesters demanding the resolution of land, logging and fishery disputes across the country.
The protesters came to Phnom Penh bearing the thumbprints of some 60,000 people from across the country collected in a petition urging Prime Minister Hun Sen to help settle their myriad land, forest and fishery disputes.
Though the confrontation ended peacefully, police kept the crowd from walking to the premier’s home and thwarted their plan of personally delivering their petition to Mr Hun Sen.
Organizers of the march said that Phnom Penh municipality gave no reason for rejecting their request walk from Wat Phnom to Mr Hun Sen’s house.
“We wished to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen face to face and tell him about reports of some bad officials who collude with bad businessmen or powerful people to violate villagers’ land and destroy our community forests,” said Seng Sok Heng, a community forestry representative from Oddar Meanchey province and one of the rally’s organizers.
“But riot police stopped us and did not allow our marchers to walk to the prime minister.”
Mom Sokim, a representative from Kratie province, said the petitioners want Mr Hun Sen to know what is really taking place in the countryside.
“We want the Prime Minister Hun Sen to know [more than] only the good news from fake reports,” Ms Sokim said.
“There are many villagers who suffer and are intimidated by [powerful people] who burn down their houses, force our villagers to move and grab their land,” she said
“How can villagers farm when [powerful people] grab their land and bulldoze their farms because they say it’s their land?” she said.
“The land concession rules are very clear, that land concessions will not effect the villagers’ land, but the implementation is opposite because they chase the villagers out.”
On Monday, the country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Christophe Peschoux, said he regretted the city’s decision to ban the peaceful march. Under the recently passed Peaceful Demonstration Law, authorities must show that a planned march risks endangering public order before stopping it.
“It is difficult to understand how a peaceful march involving only 220 persons, whose sole objective is to deliver a petition to the prime minister, could possibly endanger public order or security,” Mr Peschoux said in a statement.
“It is sad. I wish they had allowed the people to [deliver] their petition,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center. “It should be a positive thing.”
Daun Penh district Governor Sok Sambath said authorities banned the march for the protestors’ own good.
“Phnom Penh these days has many traffic jams, so we did not allow them to march across the city,” he said. “But if they come to rally in front of Wat Botum it is a good way for us to keep them safe, that is the reason.”
Though barred from marching, the protesters did hand their petition to a member of the premier’s Cabinet, Kong Chamroeun.
“We are working on the case of their petition,” Mr Chamroeun said. “It will be delivered to the prime minister.”
On Monday, some of the same protesters delivered petitions covering various land disputes to the OHCHR to pass on to UN special envoy Surya Subedi, who arrived in Cambodia last week for a 10-day mission to study the country’s judicial system.
Local rights group Adhoc last week urged Mr Subedi to spend his visit focusing on land disputes as well as the courts. The UN envoy has declined to comment on his visit mid-mission, but according to Adhoc Executive Director Thun Saray, Mr Subedi informed him he hoped to address land issues through judicial reform.
Mr Virak, of the Legal Education Center, welcomed the plan.
“Judicial reform helps to address injustice,” he said. “If the judiciary works, you can address the land problems better.”
But he said the relationship runs the opposite way as well. Enforcing the country’s 2001 Land Law, he suggested, could pay dividends with an improved judicial system.
“Sometimes addressing land problems, you may also address judicial reform as well,” he said.
Mr Virak said he had no preference for either “school of thought,” but suggested a focus on land issues might bear fruit sooner than overhauling the country’s court.
“When you talk about land, you talk about livelihood, you talk about food, so maybe it’s more relevant,” he said.
Earlier this month, the NGO Forum, an umbrellas organization for dozens of local non-government groups, claimed that Cambodia’s land disputes were growing increasingly tense, with nearly half leading either to violence or the threat of violence.