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Desperate Boeung Kak Protesters Turn to the Spirit World

Around 200 evictees from two Phnom Penh developments gathered in front of the National Assembly, demanding that 15 of their representatives be released from jail, file photo.

With no result from a series of demonstrations urging the release of 15 women from the Boeung Kak community in Phnom Penh, distraught protesters turned to the spirit world on Wednesday.

They prayed to the spirits of Yay Mao and Ta Prak, who they believe have the power to bring about the release 15 women seized in a series of protests in May.

Thirteen of the women were hastily convicted on charges related to their building a house at the Boeung Kak site in protest of a forced eviction there earlier this year. Two more who were arrested at a subsequent demonstration have yet to be released.

Thursday’s spirit prayers, attended by some 50 community members of Boeung Kak, were an indicator the protesters have run out of options as they seek to remain living at a site slated for a massive commercial and residential development.

“We have submitted letters everywhere, and there is no response—even to the king—no one came to receive our letter,” said Yaum Bopha, a representative of the Boeung Kak residents.

More than 4,000 families have been forced to leave the Boeung Kak area, which was once a lake, to make room for the 133-hectare development. Many families were unhappy with compensation packages and relocation to inferior sites outside the city, and the holdouts have continued sustained demonstrations against the evictions. Some of those demonstrations have ended in violence, others in arrests, in what has become a nettling problem for the city and national government.

Under pressure from the World Bank, Prime Minister Hun Sen last year ordered the developer, Shukaku, Inc., to set aside more than 12 hectares for families. But some families said the allotment itself was derailed by underhanded deals, and they began appealing to City Hall, the National Assembly, Hun Sen’s office, the Ministry of Justice and the Royal Palace.

On Thursday, they saw the spirits of Yay Mao and Ta Prak as their last resort, as residents burned chili peppers with salt and chanted. “Our only hope is the spirits,” said Duong Kea, another resident.

“When citizens run to abstract beliefs, such as this case, it means people have lost all confidence and belief in state institutions, such as the judicial system and the authorities, to solve their problems,” said Moeun Tola, a labor rights activist for the Community Legal Education Center.

Meanwhile, Mu Sochua, an opposition parliamentarian for the Sam Rainsy Party, is currently in Washington seeking help from the US government to pressure for the release of 15 women.

In a TV interview with VOA Khmer, she said she met with Melanne Verveer, the US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, suggesting the protesters be released before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Phnom Penh for a visit next month.

Mu Sochua has said in the past the US should stop military aid to Cambodia until it improves its rights record, especially in the use of force against civilians by state security.