Carrying riot shields and electrified batons, police subdued a Phnom Penh protest yesterday morning led by Boeng Kak lake villagers who were demanding a meeting with governor Kep Chuktema.
Municipal intervention police and Daun Penh district public order agents pushed the protesters around with their shields, scattering the large group after it blocked traffic on Monivong Boulevard.
Although police were not seen hitting the protesters, a reporter and villagers heard Daun Penh district deputy governor Sok Penhvuth ordering authorities to “beat them.” Mr Penhvuth could not be reached later by telephone.
Officers briefly detained three of the more than 100 protesters, but released them hours later after they signed a letter promising not to take part in any more rallies not authorized by municipal authorities.
Also, a man in civilian clothes seized a digital camera from Long Kimheang, a communications officer with the Housing Rights Task Force. A district official eventually returned her camera, though someone had deleted all photographs of the scuffle.
“There were many police who came to crack down and threw us on the truck while we were sitting quietly,” said 36-year-old Ros Sreyneang, one of the three detained villagers. “They did not fight me, but they threw me like an animal and pressed down on my legs.”
Ms Sreyneang, who said she is three months pregnant, was shoved onto a truck and driven along with Suong Samai, 53, to municipal police headquarters where officers made them sign and thumbprint a handwritten statement they would not take part in unauthorized protests or disrupt the city’s “public order.”
“I was concerned about my unborn baby when they threw me on the truck,” she said. “They asked me to make the promise letter and then they released us.”
Gathering at 8 am around City Hall on Monivong Boulevard, the villagers sought a meeting with Mr Chuktema since he on Feb 17 had rejected their request for 15 hectares on the eastern side of the lake that they would divide and develop themselves.
When the governor did not appear, the crowd moved toward the building’s front gate shortly before 9 am and blocked the busy street.
There, about 200 police moved in a dispersed the pack.
“The action was very brutal. They did not think that we are women who protect our housing,” said villagers representative Tep Vanny. “The government is walking the wrong way.”
Mr Chuktema and Daun Penh district governor Sok Sambath declined to comment.
Authorities said police were only present to help control the crowd.
“Military police just went to restore public order,” said Brigadier General Pong Savrith, deputy municipal military police commander.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said police were only trying to maintain order and prevent clashes between the villagers and company representatives.
Sia Phearum, secretary-general of the Housing Rights Task Force, said Boeng Kak residents were understandably upset over the lack of information coming out about the development at the filled-in lake.
Shukaku Erdos Hongjun Property Development Co Ltd, which is now running the project, has a 99-year lease to develop the 133-hectare lake and the surrounding villages.
“So far, they are not willing to tell the people what they are doing. They just tell the people to move,” Mr Phearum said. The villagers “are left wondering.”