Police opened fire and arrested 11 villagers who clashed with local officials and security guards on Tuesday over a forced eviction that left a dozen people injured in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Residents of the Borei Keila community in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district used bricks and crowbars to confront the group of men hired to provide security for developer Phanimex while company workers demolished nearly 300 homes in the area.
More than 500 police accompanied Phanimex employees who worked alongside an excavator to demolish the houses as instructed in a court order which ruled that the land be given to the developer.
Rights groups and opposition leaders slammed Phanimex for going ahead with the demolition, saying the company had not completed building alternate homes for the villagers as required under an agreement.
They also accused the company of using the police to victimize the villagers.
Human rights monitors witnessed company workers using a jackhammer to break up large boulders into smaller stones, which police officers used to pelt residents, according to Cambodian rights group LICADHO.
Police, who fired warning shots, used sticks and electric batons to keep residents at bay. Villagers responded by throwing stones, Molotov cocktails, and using tree branches to attack the police and company employees.
Soth Chantrea, 13, told RFA that police beat him during the conflict.
“I received a bruise on my forehead,” the boy said. “They kicked me five or six times and then they hit me with a gun.”
An elderly woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she would fight the eviction until the end.
“I depend on this house. They can kill me, I’m not afraid. I’m not leaving,” she said.
“I ask Hun Sen to help me," she said, referring to the Cambodian prime minister. "I don’t know who else to turn to."
Villagers maintained that they own the rights to the property and should not be removed from the premises.
“My father has lived on this property since1998,” a soldier who asked to remain anonymous told RFA.
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, leaving 300 families from the area with nowhere to live.
The Phnom Penh Post, a local daily, quoted 44-year-old Ponh Touch as saying that officials and guards were trying to force people to move to resettlement areas in Tuol Sambo village and Phnom Bath village in Kandal province.
“Most of us want to live in buildings at the Borei Keila site because it is the agreement between the company and the government since 2003,” Ponh Touch said, adding that some families had agreed to move to Tuol Sambo and Phnom Bath.
Cambodian Youth Network President Tim Malay said that evicting the families “shows once again that Cambodia’s political and economic elite can operate with absolute impunity.”
Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community Coordinator Teng Savoeun called the confrontation “a terrible situation” for the families.
“It is also a very sad way to start the New Year.”
A consortium of 11 human rights groups, including LICADHO, issued a statement on Tuesday calling on Phanimex to honor its promise to build all 10 apartment buildings for the residents with oversight from the municipal government to ensure that the construction takes place.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said Phanimex had “abused the agreement,” adding that the company had no right to demolish the homes in Borei Keila.
“I appeal to the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen to look into this case. The government should investigate because the company is in breach of contract,” she said.
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which banned private property and 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 by Uon Chhin for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.