PHNOM PENH - Before US President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, in what has been described as a “tense” meeting on Monday night, demonstrators were blocked on the streets of Phnom Penh, where they had attempted to reach the Peace Palace government building where the meeting would be held.
Cambodian officials have said numerous reports of human rights abuses ahead of Obama’s visit were meant to discredit the government, but demonstrators say they have legitimate grievances with a judicial and administrative system widely viewed as corrupt.
The protesters were stopped by police before the arrival of Obama and his delegation, which included US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many of the major thoroughfares through the capital were closed down ahead of the arrival of Obama and other dignitaries from across the region.
“Help me, Mr. Obama,” one protester shouted. “Help us. Please.”
The demonstrators were a small fraction of the estimated 420,000 Cambodians who rights groups say have been hurt by Cambodia’s land, development and real estate booms, often displaced in forced evictions at the hands of government and private security forces.
“We are counting on Mr. Obama and Mrs. Hillary Clinton to intervene, because we cannot go to the prime minister’s house,” said Mam Chhun Neang, one of the protesters. “Every time we try to go to seek a solution, they use force against us, every single time. They always arrest us for being illegal. But I am not doing anything wrong. I only want to claim the rights to my own lands and the lands of the other Boeung Kak residents.”
Some of the most angered demonstrators come from the Phnom Penh neighborhood of Boeung Kak, which was once a lake with lakeside homes on stilts and is now a giant patch of sand. The sand was dredged and pumped in from the nearby Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, to form the bedrock of a luxury commercial and residential project.
“I hope the US president will help us, because his country is a democratic country that respects human rights,” said demonstrator Chhay Nim. “Therefore he must help other countries such as Cambodia learn how to respect human rights and democracy like his own country.”
When Obama did arrive, he discussed a number of human rights concerns, including land disputes, with Hun Sen. The Los Angeles Times, citing a White House aide, called Obama’s meeting with Hun Sen “tense” and “frank,” and reported that Hun Sen “did not smile before entering the private meeting with the president.”
A Hun Sen spokesman said the premier told Obama that widespread land grabs were a thing of the past.
“Because there were a number of people who lived there illegally,” the spokesman, Prak Sokhon, told reporters after the meeting. “Therefore we were forced to enforce the law. They had to leave. However, the prime minister stressed that the amount of land is so small compared to what we have done for the people who have no land.”
He did not elaborate.
In fact, the rights group Licadho has continued to document ongoing land concessions across the country, totaling more than 2 million hectares between 1996 and 2012, many of them in the last few years and many of them ousting local residents.