Police in Tbong Khmum province on Monday prevented a group of at least 100 protesters involved in a local land dispute from getting anywhere near Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was in the area to preside over the groundbreaking of the new province’s headquarters.
Some 500 families in the province’s Memot district claim that the Memot Rubber Plantation’s land concession encroaches on about 20 hectares they say they have been living on since 1980, a year after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The families have managed to hold on to their homes so far but are demanding land titles to make their tenures secure.
The villagers got wind of Mr. Hun Sen’s plans to inaugurate the provincial headquarters in Tbong Khmum district, and headed out in two vans and several motorbikes Monday morning hoping to lodge their complaints with the prime minister in person and ask for his help.
However, about 80 police officers blocked their way, according to Un Sucheng, one of the protesters. She said the police twice stopped their convoy along National Road 7 before they could make it out of Memot, but eventually let them pass on both occasions before stopping them for good on the third occasion.
“They blocked us because they did not want the prime minister to see our suffering…. They were afraid that we could cause trouble for them,” she said. “They violated our rights and tried to hide their bad deeds from the prime minister.”
Ms. Sucheng said the police advised them to try and meet Mr. Hun Sen in Phnom Penh instead.
“We just want our land titles because we have been living there for a long time,” she said.
The country’s Land Law offers property rights to those who can prove occupancy as of 1996 or earlier.
Memot district governor Cheng Ponnara said he ordered his officers to keep the protesters away from the inauguration because they had not been invited.
“There were about 100 people coming to ask the prime minister to intervene and get them land titles,” he said. “But because we did not invite them, and were concerned about the leader’s safety, we prevented them from getting into the ceremony.”