Opposition parliamentarians went into high alert Thursday morning when a larger-than-usual security presence at the National Assembly was misinterpreted as the start of an attack on the memorial stupa commemorating the 1997 grenade attack victims.
Although three other stupas across the street from the National Assembly have been destroyed, military and municipal police officers said Thursday that the stupa was not the reason they were there. Media and human rights workers were summoned to the stupa by an e-mail from Sam Rainsy, who is in Paris for the Consultative Group meeting. The e-mail, marked urgent, said that hundreds of soldiers and military policemen were poised to attack the stupa.
But the attack did not materialize and most of the police left when the National Assembly session ended at midday.
Overseeing Thursday’s operation was Seng Vanna, deputy municipal police chief. He said the force, comprised of intervention police, military police and municipal police, were there to protect the National Assembly from people protesting alleged land grabs.
The land grab protesters are poor people from the countryside who have lived under tarpaulins near the National Assembly, in some cases for months. They marked Tuesday’s reconvening of the assembly by unfurling banners which read “To Rob Peoples’ Land is to Kill Them.”
Tensions have been high at the memorial stupa, where city officials have butted heads for weeks with Sam Rainsy Party members and relatives of the victims of the 1997 attack. The city has removed the stupa three times, claiming it was erected without permission. The city instead wants Sam Rainsy to move the stupa to under a tree near Wat Botum or to another pagoda in Phnom Penh.
King Norodom Sihanouk has been asked to arbitrate in the dispute and both sides recently verbally agreed to abide by the monarch’s decision.