A woman was knocked unconscious and many more fell to the ground when municipal authorities unleashed a water cannon on Boeung Kak lake, Borei Keila and Thmor Kol protesters, who were blocking the capital’s Monivong Boulevard yesterday.
Protesters sitting on the road were met with the storm-like onslaught after more than 100 had gathered outside City Hall to demand new Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong deliver on his pledge to resolve their land disputes.
The spray’s force, from three fire trucks, left Khek Chan Raksmey, 33, unconscious on the ground, while others – soaked – ran or were pulled to safety.
Boeung Kak land activist Sen Touch said protesters from the three communities had wanted to know when the governor would act on his promise to end their disputes but felt yesterday’s incident showed municipal authorities didn’t really want to find solutions.
“If you want to kill people, just use the real bullets, not fire engines,” she said.
After an ambulance was refused because villagers said they could not afford to pay for it, Chan Raksmey was taken in a tuk-tuk to the clinic of rights group Licadho for treatment.
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Choun Sovann said yesterday that authorities had no choice but to spray the protesters, who blocked or slowed traffic for more than two hours.
“I had already told them not to block the road because there are many people who travel along this boulevard,” he said. “We should respect all people’s rights, not just a few.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the villagers’ efforts to block the road were akin to “kidnapping” road users and holding them hostage.
“Because of this, we’re obliged to crack down on [protesters],” he said.
The congestion caused by the incident frustrated motorist San Chamreung.
“I cannot accept this roadblock because it affects my career. I know they have been treated unfairly, but this is treating us unfairly,” he said.
But Nay Vanda, from rights group Adhoc, said firing water at the protesters was an extreme method that served only to flare tempers.
“The municipal governor should solve these [protesters’] problems,” he said.
During his swearing in early this month, Socheatvong promised quick solutions to the disputes. He followed this pledge up days later in meetings with community representatives.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said the incident turned the clock back two or three years to more violent protests, just when it appeared the governor was close to taking action.
“We’re really disappointed with the authorities for using violence to stop a peaceful protest,” he said. “They are women trying to find a solution.”
Phearum said the disputes needed to be resolved before the beginning of election campaigning in about four weeks.
“When the election campaigns begin, they know they will have no chance. They were cheated before the 2008 [election] – the previous governor promised not to evict them.”
Dimanche said yesterday that municipal authorities had created a committee to review villagers’ documents in order to resolve the disputes.
“We are asking for time to solve these problems for villagers,” he said.
Additional reporting by Shane Worrell