Scores of anti-riot police on Wednesday wrapped up a two-day operation removing nearly 400 protesting occupants from land earmarked for a controversial development project in Cambodia’s capital as local authorities slapped eight villagers with assault charges and imprisoned them.
Some 373 families were forced to leave the Borei Keila community in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district as authorities destroyed the last of a group of homes to make way for a commercial real estate project backed by local developer Phanimex Co.
Unlike Tuesday, when police clashed with evictees trying to protect their homes, the occupants held peaceful protests against the demolition on Wednesday before leaving the site.
After police occupied the area, the majority of protesters grudgingly agreed to accept relocation at a site outside of the city center, but another 100 villagers took to the streets and marched to the U.S. embassy, where they protested against the eviction for nearly two hours.
At around 8:00 p.m., Daun Penh district deputy governor Sok Penh Vuth told the group outside the embassy that they would have to leave the area for security reasons, and police moved in to disperse the crowd.
Eight of the 11 people arrested on Tuesday were formally charged in court with assault on Wednesday and are being held in Prey Sar Prison.
Many of the 100 villagers had no alternative housing and criticized Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party. Some of them had been squatting on the site illegally for years.
Resident Kim Horn said villagers had voted in Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) lawmakers in the last election, hoping that the government would help protect their homes, but found that local officials had lent their support to Phanimex instead.
“I trusted the CPP. I voted for them. But now they have destroyed my house,” she said.
Neither city nor company officials were present at Wednesday’s evictions to respond to media questions.
But an article carried in the official Koh Santepheap daily Wednesday quoted Prampi Makara District Governor Som Sovann as saying that lawmakers from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party had “incited villagers to protest the evictions” when Phanimex had already provided families with new housing.
The 373 protesting families consisted of some 180 who are viewed as documented property owners and are being forced to move to homes about 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from Borei Keila. The remaining families are seen as squatters by municipal and company officials.
Som Sovann said the squatting families were being removed from the area for aesthetic reasons.
“We have the right to develop the land and to build a clean city,” he said.
In early 2003, a land-sharing deal was proposed in which Borei Keila would allow Phanimex to develop part of the community for commercial purposes while providing housing for the residents on the remaining land.
Under the agreement, Phanimex was to build 10 six-floor apartment buildings for 1,776 displaced families on two hectares (five acres) of land in return for the ownership of the remaining 2.6 hectares of (6.4 acres) for commercial development.
But Phanimex had only constructed eight buildings, instead providing nearly 300 families from the area with housing outside of the city in Tuol Sambo and Phnom Bath.
More than 100 of the families agreed to relocate, but the remainder held out for more compensation, saying the company had breached its agreement and provided them with an inadequate alternative.
Those demands led to anger Tuesday as evictees hurled bricks and Molotov cocktails at police officers and security personnel sent to guard Phanimex demolition workers.
Police fired warning shots and tear gas while fighting back with electric batons in a clash that left a dozen people injured.
Rights groups and opposition leaders slammed Phanimex on Tuesday for going ahead with the demolition, saying the company had not complied with the agreement to provide all the legal occupants with alternative housing at the same site in Borei Keila.
They also accused the company of using the police to victimize the villagers.
Sim Ry, 50, who lost her home in the forced eviction on Tuesday, said community members had lived in the area for as long as 10 years and many were now left with nothing.
“When the police shot tear gas at us, I ran away, and when I came back I had lost all my belongings. I don’t even have any clothes to wear. Please [Prime Minister] Hun Sen, just kill me.”
Reported by Uon Chhin for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.