Firefighters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday used high-pressure water cannons in an effort to dislodge anti-eviction protesters who were trying to force a meeting with municipal governor Pa Socheatvong, knocking one woman temporarily unconscious.
The 40-odd protesters, many of whom either have been evicted or face eviction from the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila neighborhoods, formed a human blockade in front of City Hall on Monivong Boulevard at about 9 a.m. Three fire trucks arrived on the scene about thirty minutes later.
Some of the protesters said they saw and heard Phnom Penh police chief Chuon Sovan personally directing the trucks, which opened fire with the water cannons on the protesters at about 9:45 a.m. for several minutes, knocking some over.
One of the women, Khen Chanraksmey, 32, appeared to fall down unconscious and was driven to the offices of rights group Licadho for care. Another protester, Nget Khun, 72, seemed to grow faint after the barrage of water. Both women escaped serious injury and returned home at about 1 p.m.
“They use violence on us with fire trucks and sprayed water at us as if they want to kill Khmer people,” said Tep Vanny, a resident of the city’s Boeng Kak neighborhood. She said they were protesting because they believed Mr. Socheatvong had broken a promise made in a May 9 meeting to have a solution to their land disputes by the end of the month.
The protesters continued to partially block the road until eventually giving way to traffic and moving off the street at 11:30 a.m.
Contacted by phone, Mr. Socheatvong said he never promised the protesters he would solve their disputes by the end of May.
“I asked for more time to review the documents,” he said. “In three weeks you cannot get anything done well. I have to go through a lot of administrative and technical work.”
Mr. Socheatvong, who took office in early May, said his team had already achieved a great deal in working toward a solution for the families but declined to elaborate.
Mr. Sovan, the police chief, defended the use of the fire trucks.
“They blocked the street. We just asked them not to cause public disorder. We asked them once and then twice, but they still blocked the street. What choice did we have to solve this problem in order to help the public?” he said. “We dared not to use force because [police] shields and things might have hurt them, so we used water.”
As of Wednesday evening, a group of Boeng Kak evictees asking for additional compensation from the government remained camped out in front of City Hall still hoping to pressure the governor into a meeting.
(Additional reporting by Siv Channa)