An increasingly bitter dispute over access to a road near the new Thai embassy erupted Friday, leaving one villager cut badly across the head, at least two taken into detention and two villagers’ houses dismantled.
The tense standoff began when dozens of municipal and military police officials moved in Friday morning to close the 100-meter-long road, which offers the only access by land for villagers living along the riverbanks. The city contends the road now belongs to the new Thai embassy.
About 100 villagers, some with knives, were waiting for the police. They sat in the entrance of the road and burned tires to protest. “This is our road; mine, my family’s and my people’s,” screamed one woman. “If they close the road, how can we come in and out of my house?….We are happy to die here.”
After a few hours, police sprayed water to chase them off and blocked the road with a gate. About that time, men dressed in civilian clothes clashed with the demonstrators, injuring at least one, and dismantled two houses.
A human rights official said rights workers witnessed a commune chief paying men from a nearby squatter village to rough up the demonstrators. The rights official said police also guided the “thugs” to tear down the houses.
“It was total anarchy,” said the rights official, noting that the techniques were similar to ones used by the government to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators after the 1998 national elections.
Police, however, denied the allegations. Lok Lon, Chamkar Mon district police chief, said that nobody was paid to make trouble, and the two people detained were police officers taken by their commanders.
He also defended blocking the road, saying the road now belongs to the Thai Embassy. “The Thai Embassy got that land from the government. Nobody can invade Thai territory,” Lok Lon said. He added that several police officers were hurt by villagers who threw stones.
Thai Ambassador Asiphol Chabchigrchaidol refused to comment Friday, saying it was embassy policy not to talk over the phone. Thai Defense Attache Weerasak Lomwong stressed that the Thai Embassy was not involved in the incident.
In recent weeks, Legal Aid of Cambodia has attempted to help about 180 families in what is called Village 10 negotiate a compromise with municipal authorities and the Thai Embassy over use of the access road, said George Cooper, legal adviser. The case was supposed to have been heard in Municipal Court on Monday, he said.
“We tried to negotiate with them [the authority] and we tried to find a solution in a peaceful way. But they just simply acted,” Cooper complained.
According to municipal documents, local authorities had announced the road would be closed on Thursday and had ordered owners of the two makeshift houses along the road to clear the way. A 36-year-old woman who lived in one of the two destroyed houses could do nothing but watch her roof and walls ripped off Friday.
“They say this is Thai’s land. But who was here first?” she asked, holding a shattered frame with a photograph of her husband receiving a medal from King Norodom Sihanouk. “All the activities were done by the municipality,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Smith and Seth Meixner)