Police yesterday used force to push Battambang province land protesters, including elderly women and infant children, onto a bus after they staged a sit-down demonstration at a park opposite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion in Phnom Penh.
Local rights groups immediately condemned the police action, which occurred at about 11:30 am, as excessive.
Prior to the police intervention, protesters said they represented more than 400 families from Dounba commune in Battambang province’s Koh Kralor district, who have accused RCAF Captain Saom Bunthoeun and military police Lieutenant Colonel Long Sinareth of selling 1,672 hectares of their land to an unnamed Chinese company in 2006.
They also demanded the release of their community representative Hun Sengly, who is two years into a five-year prison sentence on charges stemming from a 2008 demonstration against the alleged land grabbing.
One by one, Daun Penh district police and unidentified plain-clothes security officials violently dragged members of the roughly 50-member group against their will towards the waiting bus, which had been chartered by government officials to return them to Battambang province.
Some men, struggling with police, were carried away by as many as five officers and shoved through the bus doors. Women, including one with a toddler, were also physically dragged away.
The sound of the villagers’ sobbing could be heard after officials had forced the entire group onto the bus and shut the doors. As the bus started to move away from the curb, one woman looked out the window and shouted: “What did the people do wrong and where is the law?”
The protesters arrived in Phnom Penh on Friday and gathered yesterday at the park by Independence Monument about 100 meters to the east of Mr Hun Sen’s house in an attempt to obtain a written agreement offering assistance from the government in solving their land dispute.
Protester An Dyna, 25, said the villagers had traveled to Phnom Penh a number of times already but had been offered no solution.
“We have been here five times, including this time, but there is still no resolution for us,” Mr Dyna said, while holding a portrait photograph of Mr Hun Sen.
After half of the protesters were dragged away, those that remained offered less resistance.
Protests at the premier’s mansion in recent months have been met alternatively with violence and measured success.
Police on May 28 beat protesters and arrested five outside the Phnom Penh mansion to disperse a demonstration over a land dispute in Kandal province. Protesters from across the nation were repulsed with electric batons from the premier’s house on June 15 as they attempted to deliver a petition.
However after Koh Kong province protesters appeared at Mr Hun Sen’s house in May, the premier personally called on provincial authorities to intervene in their request for compensation for land allegedly lost to Chinese land concession.
Before police moved in yesterday morning, Battambang provincial Cabinet chief Pour Prong told the protesting villagers that they should return home and discuss their problems with provincial authorities.
“This is not the place for us to reach a resolution,” he told the villagers. “First, it is the tourist area and Phnom Penh municipality does not allow” the protest.
After the protesters had been rounded up, Daun Penh district governor Sok Sambath and his deputy Sok Penhvuth told Mr Prong to make sure that the villagers did not escape from the bus.
In a statement released after the protest, local rights group Licadho condemned the police action as excessive.
“The violence used this morning against peaceful protesters was unjustified”, Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at Licadho, said in the statement.
“The fact that the violence also targeted mothers carrying babies makes this incident even more disgraceful. How can we tolerate police using violence against mothers and babies?”
Later in the afternoon, village representative Oun Born said that the bus had taken the protesters and dropped them off at the Banan district police station in Battambang province, more than 30 km away from their homes.
“Now, we are all in Banan district police office…. We have no food to eat and no money to get home,” Ms Born said by telephone, adding that while they were not under arrest, they planned on spending the night at the police station.
Lim Leang Se, Mr Hun Sen’s deputy cabinet chief, said the authorities had not wanted to crack down on the protesters. “We just send them back to their hometown and we will solve their problem,” Mr Leang Se said.
Military officials were unavailable to comment yesterday. General Pol Saroeun, RCAF commander-in-chief, said yesterday that he was unaware of the land dispute.
(Additional reporting by Mark Worley)