Dozens of security personnel dispersed about 50 villagers from a park in Cambodia’s capital Wednesday after they attempted to hold a second day of protests over land disputes and to demand the release of 10 detained activists and a monk a day ahead of their appeal trial.
The group arrived at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh in the early morning, intending to use the site to hold a peaceful sit-in protest, but was blocked from entering by about 50 baton-wielding police and Daun Penh district security personnel.
Authorities told the villagers from a number of eviction-hit communities—including the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila areas of the capital and communities in northwestern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province—that they had no permission to demonstrate there.
After the group left the park, leader Yorm Bopha called the capital’s designated protest space merely a “symbol,” and said the people are being illegally barred from using it, despite authorities having reopened the space in August after barricading it for most of last year, citing public order abuses.
“Authorities removed barbed wire from the park, but the [land dispute] villagers aren’t being given the right to use it,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
She added that Cambodia’s political situation “remains tense” between Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Sam Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is why freedom of assembly is still limited at the park.
Freedom Park was a bastion of the CNRP and many party supporters had camped in it as part of a campaign calling for reelections and the resignation of Hun Sen following charges that July 2013 elections—which saw the CPP declared victor—had been rigged.
It was closed a day after January 2014 clashes during an opposition-supported strike by textile workers left five people dead, but reopened after Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy clinched a July 22 agreement in which the CPP agreed to election reforms and the CNRP agreed to end a nearly one-year boycott of parliament.
After failing to hold their protest Wednesday, the villagers distributed yellow ribbons to passersby in front of the park, asking them to voice their support for 10 women activists and a monk who had been sentenced to prison late last year for offenses related to a land dispute, but police quickly confiscated them.
Seven of the women were each sentenced on Nov. 11 to a year in prison for obstructing traffic during a protest, while three others and a monk were sentenced a day later for “aggravating a rebellion” while demonstrating for their release.
An appeal hearing for the 11 is scheduled for Thursday, and the villagers have vowed to continue their protests if authorities do not release them unconditionally.
The group had attempted a similar demonstration Tuesday, when at least 60 villagers were also turned away by authorities from Freedom Park and retreated to a nearby temple area, where they held a protest until the late afternoon, according to local media.
The Cambodia Daily quoted Phnom Penh deputy governor Khuong Sreng as saying the villagers had been denied a permit to protest because they had disturbed the peace on previous occasions, while some communities represented in the group were not cooperating with City Hall to resolve their disputes.
He added that the group’s demand to release the 11 jailed was unreasonable and only “the right of the court.”
Rights groups weigh in
Anti-riot police officers are deployed to stop activists from marching to Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: RFA
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or compensation to displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
Support for the 11 was echoed Wednesday by Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), who jointly urged Cambodia to overturn their convictions, and “immediately and unconditionally release them.”
“The summary, arbitrary, and disproportionate jail sentences against the 11 defendants should be quashed,” FIDH President Karim Lahidji said in a statement issued by the two organizations.
“It’s time for Cambodia’s courts to act professionally and independently from the executive and stop the judicial harassment of land rights defenders and peaceful protesters,” he said.
FIDH and OMCT said that of the 11 currently detained in the capital’s Prey Sar Prison, a woman named Phan Chhunreth from the Borei Keila community was “in poor health condition” and had been repeatedly hospitalized for a heart condition since her detention.
“The Court of Appeal must not miss the opportunity to redress a blatant injustice and order the release of the 10 human rights defenders and Venerable Seung Hai who should not have been detained in the first place,” said OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock.Sand dredging
Also on Wednesday, a group of villagers from eastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province accused Veun Sai district governor Chhum Ngel of “cooperating” with companies they said were illegally dredging sand from the Sesan River.
The villagers said the sand dredging operations had caused the river’s banks to collapse, reduced the quality of their water, and disturbed their daily lives with the loud noise of the machines used to suck sand from the riverbed.
A villager who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity said at least two companies had been illegally dredging sand near his village for years.
“When they dredge the sand, the water becomes polluted and looks murky,” he said.
“We are afraid to bring up our concerns because they have money and we are just farmers.”
He did not elaborate on Chhum Ngel’s alleged involvement in the illegal dredging operations.Official responds
When contacted by RFA, Chhum Ngel acknowledged the sand dredging businesses, but said they are operating legally with provincial permission.
He said the companies are currently seeking permission to operate from the Ministry of Industry, but had not received a response yet.
“The businesses have requested permission from the ministry. They have been dredging sand for the past three years already,” he said.
He refused to comment in response to villagers’ complaints of pollution, but said the sand dredging was only being carried out on a small scale for the time being.
Last week, Energy Ministry secretary of state Meng Saktheara told a press conference that the ministry had not issued any licenses to companies for sand dredging in the province and that all operations were illegal.
Meach Mean of local nongovernmental organization 3S Rivers Protection Network told RFA Wednesday that the government must conduct impact studies and obtain consent from villagers before handing out dredging licenses, adding that local residents are entitled to benefits from operators.Reported by Ratha Visal and RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.