More than 50 activists gathered in front of the U.S embassy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to request the intervention of First Lady Michelle Obama to press Cambodian authorities to release 11 jailed land rights defenders.
They want Obama, who is visiting Cambodia on March 20-22 to promote a U.S. initiative to help girls around the world attend and finish school, to put pressure on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to free the activists, who have been jailed for their involvement in protests of land development projects in the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities of the Cambodian capital.
“I 100 percent believe that the First Lady will intervene to the government of Cambodia immediately to release the land activists,” Bov Sophea, a Boeung Kak land rights defender, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
She said Obama’s presence in Cambodia would help persuade authorities to free the jailed activists—11 women and a monk—who were arrested last year.
This is the second time that villagers have demonstrated outside the embassy to request Obama’s intervention.
Last Friday, four activists presented a petition to embassy personnel, requesting a meeting with Obama to discuss the release of their colleagues and help for residents of the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities, who have been threatened by authorities and forced to accept inadequate land.
Cambodian police watched the activists as they submitted their petition, but did not arrest them, Yorm Bopha, one of the activists, told RFA last week.
“We want to appeal to the First Lady to push the government to release land activists who have been imprisoned for several months, because there is no sign that they will be released soon,” she said.
'We will listen’
Long Dymong, spokesman of Phnom Penh city hall, said the mayor’s office was about to finalize the resolution of the land dispute in the Boeung Kak community.
“If Michelle Obama has any requests, we will listen to the Cambodia government’s recommendations,” he said.
Obama will discuss the need for an open political system and highlight human rights during her visit to Cambodia, the Associated Press reported.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung refused to comment on Obama’s plans to discuss human rights, but said, “The important visit will also strengthen the bond of friendship and cooperation between the Kingdom of Cambodia and United States of America.”
Residents of the Boeung Kak Lake community—a settlement that included nine villages surrounding a lake—have been fighting authorities for years over the eviction of thousands of families to make way for a development project that has yet to materialize.
Hundreds of residents of the Borei Keila community were violently evicted from their homes in 2012 to make way for a new development by another private company.
The seizure of land for development, often without due process or compensation for displaced residents, has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, such as China and Myanmar.
Reported by Rann Samnang and Samean Yun of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.