Authorities have beaten unconscious an activist who led villagers in a standoff Friday against a construction crew hired to demolish their homes in the latest dustup over a controversial development project in the Cambodian capital.
Suong Sophoan, a villager of the Boeung Kak Lake area of central Phnom Penh, was beaten until he lay bloody and motionless, a witness said, after he and a group of protesters tried to break through a cordon of anti-riot police armed with electric batons and shields.
“I saw a police officer hurl a concrete stone. It happened so fast,” said the witness, who asked to remain anonymous.
Soon after, Suong Sophoan was taken to the hospital for treatment, the witness said.
The police had been sent by municipal authorities to protect workers of the Shukaku Inc. development company from angered protesters who had been evicted Friday despite an order last month from Prime Minister Hun Sen setting land aside for their use.
According to Hun Sen’s decree, 12.44 hectares (31 acres) was to be set aside for 794 families who were facing eviction to develop themselves.
But local authorities have excluded 47 families from the land, and villagers say that the implementation of the decree has lacked transparency. The protesters were from among the excluded families, who authorities said did not have land titles recognized by the government.
Nearly 3,000 families had been evicted before the order to set aside land went into effect, as many residents were forced to accept what they considered inadequate compensation from the government.
Shukaku Inc. is a Chinese-Cambodian company owned by a politician from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party which has been filling in the lake with sand in preparation for the construction of a luxury residential site.
Plea for help
The families had marched across the city on Thursday to the U.S., U.K., and Chinese embassies, pleading for intervention and calling on Hun Sen for assistance.
But the developer moved in a day later, and as they watched their homes being destroyed, many were left to wonder what recourse remained for them.
A villager named Bo Chorvy who lost her house called on the prime minister for help.
“Where is Samdech [Hun Sen]?” she asked. “They have destroyed everything I’ve earned in my life in one second.”
Another villager, Doung Suor, echoed the plea.
“Where can I live? Samdech please help me,” he said.
One 13-year-old girl, who gave her name as Srey Lak, said that she feared for her education.
“I have lost my house. I don’t have a place to live anymore. How can I go to school?” she asked.
At least eight homes were destroyed during the demolition, witnesses said.
Hun Sen’s decision to earmark property for the remaining families came a week after an announcement by the World Bank that it would halt new loans to Cambodia until the land dispute was resolved.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA at the time that the decision was not a result of pressure from the World Bank, adding that it was “the government’s stance” on the issue.
Boeung Kak villagers welcomed the government’s decision, but expressed concern that corruption and mismanagement by local authorities might leave residents landless in the end.
They said the central government would be less motivated to follow through on implementation because it had simply cut a deal with the villagers to restart funding from the World Bank.
In March, an independent inspection panel found that the World Bank had mishandled a land titling program that led to the eviction of residents from the lake district over the past two years.
Following the panel’s findings, the bank offered to help the government find a solution for the residents, but it also warned that it would reconsider its work in the country if the forced relocations were not halted.
The families who remained at Boeung Kak Lake had held frequent protests in recent months, saying they were holding out for property on the same site after the construction is complete, or for greater compensation.
They say they are entitled to the property under Cambodia’s Land Law, though few of them possess titles, because they have lived there for decades.
Police and company workers had threatened and harassed the residents in attempts to prevent them from holding meetings and from peacefully protesting against the forced eviction.
Police had also used excessive force against some residents when they gathered to bring the issue to the attention of visiting dignitaries and Cambodian politicians, rights groups said.
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
An estimated 30,000 people a year in Cambodia are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
Reported and translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.