Five former Borei Keila women who escaped from the Prey Speu social affairs centre last month after being detained without charge were among six arrested when a protest turned violent in Phnom Penh yesterday.
Women shouted at officials and two tore off their clothes and bared their breasts as more than 50 female evictees from Borei Keila and Boeung Kak blocked traffic outside the city hall on Preah Monivong Boulevard in a bid to have municipal governor Kep Chutema listen to them.
Their requests were familiar – they wanted officials to resolve their land disputes through proper housing or compensation and release seven Borei Keila evictees who have been detained in Prey Sar prison since January 3, when more than 200 homes were demolished at Borei Keila.
Yesterday’s protest turned violent when Daun Penh district governor Sok Sambath ordered security forces to arrest protesters using the ratio of “five [security guards or police] to each woman”.
Guards in blue uniforms were the first to use force, followed by police, who rushed to restrain women – some of them frail or elderly – and dragged or carried them to a municipal police truck.
Some of the women ran away in fright as others fought with police and security guards.
One woman fainted after a struggle with officials, while a security guard passed out after receiving a blow to the groin.
Five of the six women arrested had been detained in a similar protest on January 11 and held without charge at Prey Speu social affairs centre before climbing the walls and escaping a week later.
The other woman arrested was a former resident of Boeung Kak.
Among those police tried to detain was Chum Ghan, an evictee of Borei Keila. She escaped the clutches of police and disappeared into the crowd of screaming protesters, but later told the Post she had been injured during the scuffle and expected she would be arrested.
“In spite of a crackdown from the police, we will keep protesting until we receive a proper resolution from the municipal authority,” she said.
Earlier, the women had gathered with their letter of requests and an intervention paper from Heng Samrin, president of the national assembly.
Villagers said Heng Samrin had signed a complaint from them on January 19 requesting that Kep Chutema find a resolution to the dispute.
The women’s banners showed images of development firm Phan Imex’s machinery destroying their homes at Borei Keila last month, and they repeated calls for the company to finish the final two of 10 buildings it had agreed in 2003 to construct.
Chan Soveth, an investigator for the human-rights group Adhoc, said the authorities’ constant use of violence to break up protests was an abuse of the villagers’ rights.
“We are really disappointed when the authorities use violence,” he said.
Sia Phearum, the secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, shared this view.
Kiet Chhe, city hall deputy administration chief, declined to answer questions put to him about the arrests.
“I have two eyes and you have two eyes, so what I saw you also saw,” he said.
Earlier, more than 100 former Boeung Kak residents, who agreed to accept US$8,500 in compensation, gathered to demand more money, claiming they could only afford to buy land but not houses to build.
Many, however, had left for home by the time the main protest began.
The Phnom Penh municipality released a statement yesterday criticising the former Boeung Kak protesters for asking for another $20,000 per family.
“They violated their agreement,” the statement reads.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua condemned the treatment of the protesters and said authorities should have listened to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s speech the day before, in which he ordered an end to violent land disputes.
“This is exactly what he is speaking about,” she said.
The arrested women were being targeted by Phan Imex and protesters were being ignored, Mu Sochua said.
“This is continued harassment that is an attempt to keep them silent.”
But Mu Sochua doubted harassment would deter villagers and cited Boeung Kak evictees as an example of people who had remained strong despite losing their houses and land.
“Their spirit is stronger than ever,’’ she said.
“Who in the government has ever spoken to these protesters? There has been a total lack of accountability.”