Olympic market traders accused the Thai Boon Rang company of trying to "strangle"
Khmer people as a dispute over proposed rents turned into a passionate demonstration.
It was the second one this month. Both have been well-organized and peaceful but
protesters have warned that if rent prices do not drop they will resort to violence
"with sticks, hammers or rocks."
Previously, stall holders paid nothing but now face charges of between $6,000 to
$160,00 for a 15 year lease.
On Dec. 20 they abandoned their businesses and marched to the National Assembly where
they were met by Finance Minister Sam Rainsy.
There had been fears the government would take no action as it recently received
a $1.7 million airplane from Theng Boon Ma, the Chinese/Cambodian owner of the company
who holds Thai citizenship.
Some senior officials saw it as a gesture to buy off the government. However, Rainsy
showed strong support for the stall holders.
He said the traders had every right to protest and the government was tasked to find
justice for the poor.
"Justice means we have to protect the nation's interest," he said. "We
don't allow any individual or company to come to throttle vendors, especially the
poor. We must protect the state property and use it in the nation's interest. Don't
be without hope, Khmer patriots are always behind you."
One elderly woman grabbed his attention when she said sobbing: "The Khmer Rouge
already killed my husband, now do they (the Thai Boon Roong company) want to choke
me or what?"
Another said her teacher husband earned only 50,000 riel a month and even if she
sold him she would not get enough to pay for a stand.
Rainsy jokingly told her not to sell him as he was very important.
But many traders found nothing to laugh about and Rainsy promised to support the
complaints and take the matter seriously into account.
One stall holder said the rent prices did not reflect the situation of most Cambodians.
"If vegetable sellers have 5,000 dollars to buy a stand, the royal government
[of Cambodia] does not need to go begging for aid from outside at all," said
Chin Sovy, a seller of second-hand clothes and mother of 8 children.
"It can reconstruct the country easily by selling vegetables because Khmers
are already rich," she said.
" I make less than 10,000 riel a day, how do I manage to get the money to
buy a stand?"
The protesters used banners and slogans to get their message across asking: "Is
this the Kingdom of Cambodia or the Kingdom of Thai Boon Roong?."
Another said: "Do not turn foreign investment into pliers to grip the necks
of Khmer people" and a cartoon showed someone being hung by the neck on the
hook of a dollar which read "Olympic market is the killing field."
The new governor of Phnom Penh Municipality also came under fire from the demonstrators
who accused him of colluding with Thai Boon Roong company.
Chhim Seak Leng denied the charge. He said he had no knowledge with whom or how the
contract on market construction was reached two years ago when the former State of
Cambodia was still in power.
"It [the contract] has been here a very long time. I didn't sign any agreement
with Thai Boon Roong when I talked to him," Leng said, referring to the owner
of the company.
"If I take government money or a bribe, I'll cut my head for you," he added
in a meeting with the press on the same day of the protest.
He suggested a provisional committee be set up to find a solution.
Committee members should come from traders, the company, National Assembly, economics
and finance ministry and municipality.