PHNOM PENH - Boeung Kak and Borei Keila villagers embroiled in longstanding land disputes with two private companies in Phnom Penh say the authorities are protecting business interests over the public, as thousands of families lose their homes under forced evictions.
This has turned the protesters and government officials into adversaries, leading to increased tensions, the residents say.
Tep Vanny, a representative of Boeung Kak residents, many of whom were ousted by a massive commercial and residential development project, said villagers are becoming desperate and have “turned to disputes with the authorities, not the companies.”
The ongoing disputes have cause friction between the villagers and the city, creating clashes with police and leading to many arrests and demonstrations. They have become a nettling problem for the government, creating a sense of instability for both the rural and urban poor.
Meanwhile, Tep Vanny said, it is the authorities that file the complaints against the protesters.
The Boeung Kak villagers have been protesting a 133-acre development project in northern Phnom Penh since 2008, when the evictions began. Ultimately, some 4,000 families were pushed from their homes and the massive Boeung Kak lake filled with sand by the developer, Shukaku, Inc., which is owned by a ruling Cambodian People’s Party senator. The last holdouts have continued to protest, praying to spirits and appealing to top government officials like the prime minister. Some women have torn off their shirts in public protest; others have attacked police.
Most recently, Boeung Kak protesters have demonstrated before Phnom Penh Municipal Court, demanding the released of jailed activist Yorm Bopha, who was arrested Sept. 4.
“Normally, the authorities and the government are supposed to serve the people, as they are elected by the people,” Yorm Bopha’s husband, Luos Sakhorn, told VOA Khmer at his Boeung Kak home recently. “But since I’ve come to live here, the authorities have not served the people whatsoever. They only blocked them and cracked down on people protesting for their land and housing rights.”
Protesters against a second volatile Phnom Penh development site, Borei Keila, also question whether the authorities have been neutral in mediating their conflict with development company Phanimex.
Borei Keila demonstrators have joined the Boeung Kak protesters in front of the Phnom Penh court building, demanding the release of their own representative, Tim Sakmony, who was detained on Sept. 5 on incitement charges filed by the company.
“When I go to the district office, I ask the governor whether he serves the public or the company,” said Chhay Kimhorn, a Borei Keila representative. “We are in great pain with the loss of our homes, property and children’s studies. I am a woman, but I have to confront the authorities for housing rights.”
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema could not be reached for comment. However, Touch Naroth, Phnom Penh police chief, denied his forces act to benefit the companies.
“In fact, the authorities or the police do not protect anyone illegally,” he said in an interview. “Our society now has laws, so we cannot abuse the laws. But if anyone does, he or she must be punished by the laws.”
Protesters have a right to gather, Touch Naroth said. “But police also have the right to keep social order. The one or two million people in Phnom Penh will condemn us for letting just a few people block the public streets.”