Lawmakers from Cambodia’s ruling party on Monday refused to accept a petition from hundreds of people who held a rally calling for the government’s help in resolving land disputes, drawing criticism from activists who questioned the effectiveness of the country’s parliament.
The appeal, which contained more than 50,000 thumbprints from villagers across the country, was offered to ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) legislators by around 500 people protesting in front of the National Assembly, or parliament, in the capital Phnom Penh.
During the rally, the villagers danced and sang songs about their grievances. They also attempted to deliver some 11,000 complaints detailing land disputes and other injustices, such as forced evictions, but they were also rejected by the CPP lawmakers.
Food and Service Union Federation President Sar Moura, one the petitioners, questioned National Assembly President Heng Samrin’s refusal of the petitions, saying it was the legislative body’s responsibility to listen to the grievances of the people.
“We gathered the thumbprints because the villagers are having problems. We wouldn’t waste our time [doing this] if we didn’t have any problems to report,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“If the request is not honored, we will continue our campaign to make sure that the National Assembly and the government resolve our concerns. Our movement will not stop if there is no solution.”
Tep Vanny, a representative of the Boeung Kak Lake community in Phnom Penh which is fighting a forced eviction case, said CPP lawmakers and Heng Samrin “don’t respect their roles” in the legislature and “only work in the interest of their own party.”
She added that Cambodia’s justice system lacked independence and needed reform.
“I condemn the courts,” she said. “The judges must maintain their professionalism, otherwise they should be prosecuted.”
But while members of parliament from the CPP refused to accept the petitions, lawmakers from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP) chose to meet with the activists outside of the National Assembly building and agreed to investigate their claims.
SRP Member of Parliament Son Chhay called on CPP lawmakers and Heng Samrin to help resolve the villagers’ problems.
“I want to see the president of the National Assembly and the deputy and other senior officials from the CPP,” he said from outside the parliament.
“Please come out from the National Assembly building to help the villagers.”
Calls for release
In addition to calling on the lawmakers to help resolve land disputes, activists outside the National Assembly demanded the release of land activists Yorm Bopha of Boeung Kak Lake and Tim Sakmony of the Borei Keila community—another group fighting a forced eviction in the capital.
The two women were detained in early September and had faced charges unrelated to the protests, such as beating up a thief and making a false declaration, which rights groups say do not require pretrial detention at all. Last week they said that guards at their prisons had forced them to affix their thumbprints to false confession documents.
Protesters also called for the release of Mam Sonando, the 71-year-old independent Beehive Radio station director, who was convicted in October of masterminding a secessionist plot on charges that critics say are politically motivated. He was denied bail last week while awaiting an appeal of his conviction.
They demanded that the National Assembly reopen the case of the death of environmental activist Chut Wutty, who had organized communities to protect forests and in April was gunned down while investigating illegal logging operations in Koh Kong province.
Court proceedings on his case, the highest-profile death of a Cambodian activist in years, ended in October after judges dropped an investigation into the murder on the grounds that the suspected killer was already dead.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.