Friday, April 22, 2011

Lake protest turns bloody

An elderly Boeung Kak residents was savagely beaten up Hun Xen's cops (Photo: RFA Khmer Service)
The Phnom Penh Post

Police beat and arrested villagers including elderly women and children as young as 11 yesterday as they protested their impending eviction from land surrounding the capital’s Boeung Kak lake, an incident observers called a “new low” in the lakeside debacle.

The violence came one day after a meeting with government officials in which donors flagged land rights and resettlement as among the Kingdom’s biggest development challenges.

About 100 villagers gathered yesterday morning in front of City Hall, calling for a moratorium on the filling of the lake and new talks on resettlement and compensation plans. More than 100 local and military police subsequently surrounded the gathering as the villagers blocked Monivong Boulevard in Daun Penh district.

Municipal Cabinet chief Koet Chhe and Daun Penh district governor Sok Sambath later appeared, urging the villagers to return home and rejected their requests for talks.

When the crowd refused to disperse, police dragged several villagers into a police van while beating others with electric batons.

“Police with shields and electric batons attacked us weak and unarmed women,” said Nhet Khun, 71, who was bleeding from the head following the protest.

“We do not know what to think, because the government does not help us and instead uses force to attack us.”

Among the 11 people arrested yesterday were two boys – Lim Sothearith, 11, and Hong Virakyuth, 12 – who clung to their mothers as they were dragged into the police van.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth said the group remained in custody at the city police station in Russei Keo district yesterday evening.

“The villagers who were arrested were told to sign a contract promising to stop protests that cause public disorder, and to stop using violence and arguing with the police,” he said, adding that the 11 would likely be released today. “We arrested them just to educate them. We will not bring them to court.”

Touch Naruth claimed villagers had thrown water bottles and stones at police yesterday, though villagers said they had only thrown water.

Rights groups say over 4,000 families, or roughly 20,000 people, will ultimately be displaced by the 133-hectare real estate development at Boeung Kak, a joint venture project between a Chinese firm and a company owned by ruling party senator Lao Meng Khin. Over 2,000 families have already left, despite persistent complaints about the meagre compensation options presented by the city and the developer.

Residents have been offered on-site relocation, the plans for which have yet to materialise, housing in Dangkor district and two million riel (US$495), or cash payments of $8,500, far below the market value of many homes in the community.

At least 10 villagers were injured during yesterday’s violence, including community representative Tep Vanny, who broke her thumb as she was being arrested when it was caught in the door of a police van.

Police later allowed an official from the United Nations human rights office to take her to receive medical treatment before returning her to custody.

Heng Mom, 54, said the police had been “cruel” and had treated the protesters “like criminals”.

“About five police officers beat and kicked me and tried to push me into their car,” she said, adding that she had been able to break free and avoid arrest.

At a meeting between donors and government officials in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, World Bank country manager Qimiao Fan cited the Boeung Kak dispute as an example of the weak land tenure security and unclear resettlement policies that plague the Kingdom.

“With rapid urbanisation, the resumption of fast economic growth and the increasing interest from investors in large-scale commercial farming, land issues will become only more challenging, as exemplified in the Boeung Kak Lake area,” he said.

The World Bank acknowledged last month, following an internal investigation, that a land titling programme it conducted in cooperation with the government from 2002 to 2009 had failed to offer titles at the lakeside, despite the legitimate claims of residents.

Since the Boeung Kak development was approved in 2007, lakeside villagers have staged numerous rallies in the city and have clashed with police on many occasions. Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak said yesterday’s violence, however, was “a new low” in the long-running saga.

“This is a shocking and entirely unjustifiable response to a peaceful protest by the disenfranchised lake residents,” he said in a statement yesterday. “The actions of the authorities today illustrate that the rights to freedom of assembly and expression of ordinary Cambodians [are] secondary to the business operations of the wealthy and well-connected.”

Housing Rights Task Force, meanwhile, called for an investigation of the violence and urged the government to “cease its intimidation campaign and begin an honest dialogue with the Boeung Kak lake residents”.


Clash Over Eviction Plan

Police in Cambodia’s capital beat and detain residents seeking government intervention. (RFA)

Radio Free Asia

Residents of Boeung Kak Lake scuffle with police in front of city hall in Phnom Penh, April 21, 2011.

Cambodian police on Thursday clashed with 100 people demonstrating in the capital against their eviction in a land deal, leaving four injured and detaining eight, according to a representative of the protesters.

The scuffle began when police armed with riot shields, wooden sticks and batons tried to disperse the demonstrators from city hall, where they had gathered to protest the planned eviction of 1,500 families from Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake district.

The families had been told to make way for a luxury residential complex being constructed by Chinese development firm Shukaku Inc.

During the clash, three women were beaten unconscious and an elderly woman suffered a blow to her head that left her bleeding. Eight female protesters were detained and remain in police custody.

From detention, group representative Tep Vanny told RFA that one of the detainees is pregnant, while another is wounded and suffering from a broken finger.

“We are concerned about our safety, but we don’t believe we will be put in prison because we’ve done nothing wrong,” she said.

“We only came to see [the government] demanding a solution as we have been living a very difficult life. For four years, Shukaku has been investing in [the Boeung Kak Lake] area and has offered no [acceptable] solution for us.”

Sothun, another resident from the Boeung Kak area said she was angered that the government had not listened to the requests of the residents.

“We have demanded nothing but a solution, but they will not solve the problem for us,” she said.

“My house is flooded [from construction]. I am so unhappy … Why have they done this to the people? They beat us. They won’t seek a solution for the people because they have no sympathy for us.”

‘Violation of rights’

Chit Sam Ath, a representative of Cambodian human rights watchdog LICADHO, called the use of force by police against the protesters “too extreme” and a “serious violation of human rights.”

“Even though [the authorities] must maintain order, they should employ nonviolent means first,” he said.

“We do not take sides. We know there was a brawl. But, the people only threw plastic bottles of water and pushed the police. The authorities should be patient and apply due process.”

But Pol Pithey, Vice Commissioner of Phnom Penh, defended the police action.

“The people were cursing and [verbally] abusing the competent authorities.”

Land deal

In February 2007, the Cambodian government sold 133 hectares of land around Boeung Kak Lake to Chinese firm Shukaku Inc. which, in a joint venture with a Cambodian tycoon, plans to build a luxury housing estate next to the lake.

A total of 2,752 families have already been driven from their homes around Boeung Kak Lake, and thousands more are under imminent threat of eviction as a result of the deal.

Residents have resisted evictions for years, maintaining that the government compensation packages are too low, but have been warned that they will face legal action if they do not leave the land.

Further complicating the issue, many Boeung Kak Lake residents do not have formal titles to their land although legal experts say that many are entitled to them.

Authorities say that the land has been illegally occupied, and that the residents live on state-owned land.

In March, the World Bank admitted that its land-titling program, which was shut down in 2009, did not adequately protect thousands of the lake’s residents who had been evicted over the past two years.

Ongoing issue

Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country. This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.

Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.

During his visit to Cambodia in February, the U.N. Special Rapporteur to Cambodia discussed land rights issues with the director of human rights organization ADHOC, Thun Saray.

“We propose a swift and satisfactory solution for those who have been affected by the land conflict,” Thun Saray said in an interview recounting their conversation.

U.K.-based Amnesty International said in a recent statement that as party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other international human rights treaties which prohibit related human rights violations, Cambodia’s government “has an obligation to stop forced evictions and to protect the population from forced evictions.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Rachel Baker.


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