At least six people were injured on Friday when a small group of Borei Keila villagers were evicted from the grounds of an unfinished building in Phnom Penh that they began occupying this week in a bid to draw attention to a years-long fight for proper replacement housing.
As dawn over above the trash-strewn site, the road was blocked and riot police and Prampi Makara district security guards descended on about 30 villagers, who had been sleeping on thin mats under the first floor.
Villagers, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were beaten as the authorities forced them away from the building and pushed them back in the direction of a fetid tent alley that the villagers have called home ever since being violently evicted from an adjacent area in January 2012.
“I think that they are inhumane in the way they treat us,” said Has Sokchenda. “Even though I am heavily pregnant, they used sticks to beat me up on my back and they also stepped on my right thigh.
“We are just demanding our right to live in a home, because it has been two years now and still there is no resolution. In Cambodia, there is no justice for victims,” she said.
Brandishing thick, black-painted wooden sticks, the blue-uniformed security guards also wore Lucky brand helmets as they faced off against the irate villagers. A piece of clothing was thrown toward the guards, after which they mistakenly tackled Mom Vanna, an 18-year-old bystander who had been selling coconuts. A guard cracked him on the head, opening a wound that gushed blood.
Borei Keila resident Kim Saran, 47, implored the forces to restrain themselves, particularly because Mr. Vanna was not a protester.
“[Prime Minister Hun Sen] told people not to use violence, but the government’s security guards, police and military police violently crack down on people,” Ms. Saran said.
“I am a Khmer citizen. Why does Khmer fight Khmer?”
The villagers were held back for a number of hours as officials got to work erecting a barricade to the building site. During this time, they lit incense, “cursed” the officials with salt and chili, and offered them Valentine’s Day roses.
Ms. Sokchenda was taken, along with Mr. Vanna and 29-year-old Chao Sophea, for treatment at a private clinic in Tuol Kok district. Prak Sopha, 45, Prom Pich, 67, and Nhek Sokheang, 45, were also beaten and given medical treatment at the headquarters of rights group Licadho.
Friday’s clash was the latest in a long and often desperate saga that began in 2007, when Phanimex, a firm owned by well-connected businesswoman Suy Sophan, was granted 2.6 hectares of land to develop in the area.
The villagers on whose land Phanimex wanted to build were told that 10 apartment blocks would be erected for them in an adjacent site in exchange for moving. Instead, Ms. Sophan’s company only built eight, leaving a number of families homeless and forcing them to erect shacks on the land.
In January 2012, hundreds of armed police and military police violently clashed with more than 200 of the villagers and bulldozed the shelters of 300 families before sending them to a desolate relocation site 45 km away.
Some returned to Borei Keila, however, and now eke out an existence in a filthy tent alley behind the apartment blocks.
Last week, City Hall said it would construct 4-by-6-meter temporary shelters for them, but villagers began protesting after officials said they would only measure out smaller plots. On Thursday, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong and 13 representatives held talks after the villagers began to occupy the empty Building 9, as it is known, which Ms. Sophan allegedly sold on to another developer. They failed to reach a resolution on temporary housing.
Pich Limkhuon, a community representative, said villagers simply wanted to know who now owns the unfinished Building 9, which was originally intended to house them.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche declined to comment when asked who was responsible for injuring the villagers and bystander.
“[Injuries] can’t be avoided during a clash, because both sides are as strong as each other,” he said.
“Our authorities were forced to take action under the law, because the Borei Keila residents are being anarchic and living at Building 9, which is a private property—they are violating the law,” he added.
Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s technical supervisor, said the use of force was unnecessary.
“It’s an abuse of human rights; the government should bring the security forces to be penalized. If not, it will become a culture of violence where the security forces just beat protesters,” he said.
“The security forces are unprofessional—they have no proper training, they just come and beat the people.”
The riot and security officials were supported by a phalanx of men carrying Gendarmerie Royale Khmer riot shields, indicating that they are military police. This group was seen retreating along with the other officials once the barricade was erected.
Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the military police, said they were not involved in the clash.
“Our military police were not involved in the clash with Borei Keila residents,” he said. “They were present to prevent the further destruction of state and private property.”