Authorities in Phnom Penh on Thursday detained eight eviction protesters who had painted “SOS” and posted photos of U.S. President Barack Obama on their rooftops ahead of his landmark visit to Cambodia for regional summit meetings.
The eight, who are members of a community threatened with eviction ahead of a planned airport expansion, were released later the same day after rights groups demanded their freedom.
Their detention came amid a clampdown on civil society groups attempting to raise rights issues as Cambodia prepares to host world leaders for the annual East Asia Summit, which Obama will attend on Nov. 18-20.
His visit will be the first by a sitting U.S. president to Cambodia, which is hosting the meeting as this year’s chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Residents of Throm Kol village in outer Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district painted the distress signals on their homes in the hopes of drawing Obama’s attention to their plight when he flies to the city on Sunday.
Resident Phoung Sophea, who spray-painted the word “SOS” on her rooftop, said she wanted the world leader to be aware of her case.
She wanted to show her sadness that their homes will be destroyed, she told RFA’s Khmer service.
Dozens of armed police and local authorities raided the village Wednesday night, before authorities rounded up the eight the next morning, taking them into custody without providing arrest warrants, rights groups said.
The detainees were released hours later, after signing with their thumbprints agreeing they would not display any more SOS messages or portraits of the U.S. president.
Some 180 villagers in the area have been told they must leave their homes without receiving any compensation, in one of a slew of bitter land disputes in the country that rights groups say threaten the country’s stability.
‘Within their rights’
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of Cambodian rights watchdog Licadho, said the residents hadn’t done anything wrong by publicizing their imminent forced eviction.
“The villagers didn’t commit any serious crime. Decorating their houses is within their rights,” she told RFA’s Khmer service.
Six local rights groups issued a joint statement on Thursday decrying the detentions as part of a move to intimidate protesters and silence dissent ahead of the 18-nation meetings.
“Cambodian authorities are trying to suppress protests leading up to the ASEAN Summits. It seems they are willing to go to any lengths to achieve this, even arresting community members peacefully expressing their fear of threatened forced evictions,” Licadho’s director Naly Pilorge said in the statement.
The detentions over the eviction protest followed a demonstration by more than 100 from communities involved in five separate land disputes who gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Monday to petition Obama to press Cambodia to respect human rights and resolve the conflicts over land.
Authorities have threatened to arrest anyone holding public protests ahead of the sensitive regional summits and have disrupted several events held by nongovernmental organizations.
Over 70 civil society organizations from across Southeast Asia called on authorities in a statement on Thursday to stop intimidating and harassing groups attempting to discuss plans to petition world leaders during the ASEAN meetings.
Authorities have harassed civil society groups that have converged since Nov. 12 on Phnom Penh for the ASEAN Grassroots People’s Assembly and the ASEAN Civil Society Conference timed to coincide with the summit meetings, the groups said.
One conference was cancelled after electricity supply to the venue was cut off, participants were turned away from their guesthouse, and the venue itself was not made available following pressure from authorities, they said.
The groups warned that restricting and disrupting the gatherings will worsen the Cambodian government’s “already dismal” human rights record and “make a mockery” of Cambodia’s commitments as an ASEAN member state.
“We strongly urge the Cambodian authorities to respect the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly in accordance with their constitutional and international obligations, particularly in view of rising concern that it will heighten its crackdown on these fundamental freedoms ahead of the two summits,” the statement said.
Freedom Park gathering
In the face of such restrictions, more than 1,000 people affiliated with the civil society groups gathered in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Thursday to discuss the issues on which they plan to petition world leaders.
Representatives said they were meeting in the park because they could not find any other place to meet after local authorities warned building owners against allowing their premises to be used for such meetings.
The groups plan to march to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday to deliver a petition detailing specific demands that will include issues over land disputes and over land, environmental, and human trafficking concerns.
The groups also plan to march in front of the summit buildings during the meeting next week.
Municipal authorities have refused a request to hold demonstrations in the summit area.
Authorities have said they will deploy around 10,000 police officers during the ASEAN meeting, during which time demonstrations will be prohibited and universities located near the area will be ordered to close.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.