Authorities in Cambodia’s capital arrested five villagers and beat another two unconscious in a clash Wednesday during protests over a forced eviction, with two women removing their clothing to draw attention to the case.
Some 50 villagers from Borei Keila gathered in front of City Hall to demand that Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema order developer Phanimex Co. to compensate them for the demolition of their homes and to demand the firm honor an agreement to construct additional buildings for relocation.
A woman named Touch Vanna said the protesters also called on the governor to release six villagers who were detained amid clashes during the Jan. 3 eviction and are currently being held in a city prison. Many of the protesters are family members of the detained villagers.
“I came here to demand our houses back. We want Phanimex Co. to construct two more buildings as it promised us,” she said.
“Also, the government must release the villagers being detained in Prey Sar Prison.”
When Kep Chuktema refused to meet with the group, at least two of the women villagers removed their clothing in protest—a rare display in traditionally modest Cambodia—as police equipped with shields and riot batons moved in shortly afterwards.
They forced five protesters into a truck and detained them at the municipal police headquarters. None of the protesters have yet been released.
Municipal officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but in January had expressed solidarity with Phanimex over the development plan and eviction of the Borei Keila residents.
On Jan. 4 scores of anti-riot police wrapped up a two-day operation removing 373 families from the Borei Keila community in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district, which had been earmarked for a controversial commercial real estate project backed by Phanimex.
A day earlier, police had clashed with evictees trying to protect their homes and arrested six villagers.
After police occupied the area on the second day of the eviction, the majority of protesters grudgingly agreed to accept relocation sites outside of the city center.
Nearly 100 other villagers marched to the U.S. embassy to continue protests before they were dispersed by police. Many of them said they had no alternative housing and criticized Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration.
Some of the group members had been squatting on the site illegally for years.
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 saying it would provide nearly 300 families from the area with housing outside of the city in Dangkao district’s Tuol Sambo and in neighboring Kandal province, in Ponhear Leu district’s Phnom Bath.
Most of the families agreed to relocate, but many held out for more compensation, saying the company had breached its agreement and provided them with an inadequate alternative.
Rights groups hit out at the government response to the continued protests, saying authorities overstepped their boundary by using violence against peaceful protesters on Wednesday.
Sea Phearum, an official from Housing Task Force, a Cambodia-based housing rights nongovernmental organization, called on the government to negotiate with the protesters.
“The reaction was beyond the role of the authorities. They should be working to resolve the issue, not using force to crack down on protesters,” he said.
And Am Samath, a senior investigator for Cambodia-based rights group LICADHO who monitored the protest, said the use of violent measures against villagers by police is “not a solution” to the dispute.
“This is not a good solution. There should be negotiation between the villagers and city hall to avoid any confrontations,” he said.
Meanwhile, Borei Keila families who have been relocated to Srah Po village in Phnom Bath are suffering from diarrhea, skin ailments, and fever after enduring consecutive days of rain in inadequate shelters, the Phnom Penh Post reported, quoting a physician from LICADHO.
Dr. Nhean Sarin said the group of evictees was also at a higher risk of catching malaria and cholera, and that people in Srah Po village were suffering from a shortage of food.
Residents also complained of urinary infections and other ailments they said they developed after drinking water from a well installed at the site.
Some of the evictees who have HIV/AIDS say that they are no longer able to access state clinics and lack medicine for treatment.
Reported by Mom Sophon for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.