Cambodian police used water cannons Wednesday to disperse around 200 women demanding a quick resolution to long-running land disputes, knocking at least three of the protesters, including a 72-year-old, unconscious.
The move came two days after authorities used stun batons to disperse a protest over wages at a local factory, resulting in two pregnant women suffering miscarriages among the 23 hurt in the violence.
Wednesday’s incident occurred after the women from the Boeung Kak, Borei Keila, and Thmar Koul communities in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh gathered in front of City Hall to demand that new municipal governor Pa Socheatvong honor his pledge to resolve their land rows by the end of the month, according to protest leader Tep Vanny.
Residents of all three communities have been evicted to make way for luxury development projects in the capital.
Tep Vanny, who represents the residents of Boeung Kak, said the increasing use of force to break up demonstrations would not dampen their resolve to fight for justice in the land disputes.
“This crackdown will only strengthen the villagers’ unity,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
She said the authorities used water cannons from three fire trucks in an attempt to break up the protest.
An RFA reporter saw at least three women identified as Khek Chan Raksmey, Bo Chorvy, Nget Chun—all from Boeung Kak—knocked unconscious from the blast of the water cannons. Their condition was not immediately clear.
The Associated Press quoted Am Sam Ath of the local human rights group Licadho as saying that one of the women injured in the crackdown was 72 years old.
Pa Socheatvong met on May 7 with representatives from the communities and promised them a swift solution to the disputes, marking a departure from the policies of his predecessor Kep Chuketma, who had refused to hold talks.
But Tep Vanny said little had come from the governor’s pledge to begin reviewing the cases of the affected villagers.
“I want Pa Socheatvong to honor his promise to resolve the conflict by the end of May,” Tep Vanny said.
“There has been no solution, so we came to speak with him [Wednesday], but he ignored us,” she said, adding that the crackdown proved that Pa Socheatvong was unable or unwilling to resolve the land disputes which go back about decade ago.
The protesters disbanded after representatives of City Hall refused to offer them any solutions.
‘More time’ needed
City Hall spokesman Long Dyman said that the governor had established a special working group to study the three land disputes, but added that he “needed more time” to resolve them.
The spokesman said that the way the villagers had tried to bring attention to the problem was illegal.
“We can’t allow it because the villagers held a sit-in protest and sealed off a street. This is not a good practice and it affects the rights of other villagers,” he said.
“The villagers breached the traffic law.”
He called on villagers to work with City Hall and not to provoke problems.
But Naiy Vongda, a deputy in the investigation unit of Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said City Hall’s response to the protest would only further incense villagers.
He said that if Pa Socheatvong truly intends to resolve the land disputes, City Hall should invite the villagers to discuss the issues and keep them informed about the process through the participation of nongovernmental organizations.
“Land disputes are issues of life and death. They are not simply political problems,” Naiy Vongda said.
“I praise Pa Socheatvong for his efforts, but we need a true political will.”
Activists have stepped up their protests in recent weeks, demanding the city issue land titles for 64 Boeung Kak families excluded from a resettlement deal and calling for the release of jailed campaigner Yorm Bopha, who had vigorously championed evictees' right to housing.
Yorm Bopha, 29, who has been held since early September, was convicted by the Phnom Penh municipal court in December for committing “intentional violence" in connection with the beating of a suspected thief, and in March the Supreme Court rejected her bail plea.
Earlier this month, Pa Socheatvong said he will not be intervening in the case of the activist, who critics say has been imprisoned to stop her from speaking out on the land disputes.
Reported by Khe Sonorng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.