Residents living near Phnom Penh International Airport spray painted SOS and plastered pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama on the roofs of their homes yesterday in an attempt to draw Mr. Obama’s attention to their threatened eviction.
Their peaceful appeal, ahead of Mr. Obama’s visit to Cambodia next week for the East Asia and Asean summits, was greeted last night by armed police who descended on the homes in Choam Chao commune’s Thmar Kaul village and warned the residents to remove the painted messages and presidential pictures or suffer the consequences.
“More than 20 armed police and authorities came to my house and told me to remove the posters from the roof of my house. They said, ‘We will come to remove the poster tomorrow morning and we will arrest people tomorrow morning who keep the posters there,’” said Chray Nim, 34, a representative of the 182 families living near the airport who have been informed of their eviction.
In July, authorities told the families that their homes were in the way of a security “buffer zone” around the airport and needed to be cleared ahead of the arrival of world leaders. The evictions have since been delayed.
“We want Obama to help us in pushing [Prime Minister] Hun Sen to solve our problem because we are facing eviction from our homes when we live here legally,” Ms. Nim said.
The families insist they own their land legally, as local government officials had recognized their property transactions. The government has rejected that claim, saying they built their homes illegally and will be evicted without compensation.
The residents have twice submitted petitions to the National Assembly seeking adequate compensation if they are forced to leave their homes, and on November 5 and November 12, the families submitted petitions to the U.S. Embassy asking for Mr. Obama’s help.
Ms. Nim said the community came up with the idea of spray-painting messages of SOS, the international Morse code signal for help, and sticking large pictures of Mr. Obama on at least half-a-dozen aluminum roofs, after they received no answers to the numerous petitions they submitted to the National Assembly and U.S. Embassy.
Deputy commune chief Var Sarang confirmed that authorities were dispatched to investigate the protest yesterday.
“Civil aviation telephoned to [Pur Senchey district] governor Kith Sopha, saying that the posters along the runway were not good for the world leaders to see, and we just instructed the villagers to remove them now,” Mr. Sarang said
Phnom Penh police chief Chuon Sovan had said earlier that the signs and pictures would likely stay. “We don’t have any right to remove those posters because our country has democracy, and every person is able to give an opinion,” he said.