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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Evictions spell end to petitioning of Palace

Evictions spell end to petitioning of Palace

Some of the 50 police who came to evict petitioners on August 23. The last were removed this week.

Petitioning the King in times of trouble has long been a feature of life in Cambodia

- villagers still come from across the country to ask for his help. And the park

next to the National Assembly is a common place to stay while their requests are

being considered.

 

However, an official notice pinned to one of the park's tamarind trees on July

11 stated that the Palace would no longer receive requests for help. The notice said

that the Palace had determined that some of those requesting help were not in true

need; to verify claims, the Palace working group would now travel to the villagers'

home districts to examine claims for assistance.

A palace official confirmed that the notice was genuine and that this was a new policy.

He said that beginning last July, petitioners ought to write to the King through

their local authority. The Palace's working group would investigate and if necessary

bring the people to Phnom Penh to see the King.

The official said the new policy was required for several reasons: first, so that

citizens did not waste their time and money on transport; second, they would not

need to abandon their lands for the duration; third, there was no accommodation available

for people in the park; and finally, to prevent public disorder.

"Some people take this as an opportunity to make money. Some leaders of the

group are like businessmen - the members of the group have to pay him to register

in the proposal lists when they come to Phnom Penh city," the official added.

After the latest group of petitioners were ordered by police to leave the park, Thun

Saray, president of human rights group Adhoc, said that the blame for not helping

the people lay with the authorities.

"The government should pay more attention to those people. They should not dismiss

them," he says. "They came here because they really need help to solve

their problems."

Governor of Phnom Penh, Chea Sophara, is not inclined to this view. He says that

the petitions are not spontaneous. He says villagers are encouraged by others to

come to Phnom Penh and protest.

"Someone pushed them to come to the city," he said. "The number of

people who have problems is really very small."

The city's municipal deputy commissioner, Kong Saron, who is in charge of public

order, maintains that villagers have sufficient mechanisms in their areas to deal

with any problems that might arise.

"According to the law, people have to report their problems - such as insufficient

food and land disputes - to the provincial authorities. They should not gather and

come to the city," he says.

This rough shelter was home for disabled former Khmer Rouge soldiers awaiting approval for pensions.

Not so, says Adhoc's Saray, whose organization, along with human rights group Licadho,

regularly helps petitioners with food, legal advice and accommodation. He says that

constitutional provisions give citizens the right to protest.

Last week around 400 petitioners were evicted by the police, most overnight. One

group was here to resolve a 1991 land grab case; another was made up of disabled

former Khmer Rouge soldiers who want financial assistance as war veterans.

The third comprised rubber plantation workers who lost their jobs, where they had

worked since 1979 yet received no compensation. The fourth wanted drought relief,

while the fifth were farmers struggling with floodwaters.

Phuong Nam, a 56-year-old farmer, was in the fifth group of 172 hungry villagers

from Kampong Speu province. She said they arrived on August 15 to get a donation

of rice from the King and the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) after a collapsed dam ruined

their crops.

However during a downpour on the evening of August 15, the district police came to

the park and said they had to leave. Although leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy,

marched with them to the offices of the CRC, staff refused to see the villagers.

"I wonder why the Red Cross did not give us rice?" Nam asked. "I saw

on television that the Cambodian Red Cross had received a lot of foreign humanitarian

aid for starving Cambodian people like us."

One week later the police returned and said that if they did not leave, they would

return with a water cannon and force them out. Following a proposal from Rainsy,

the Palace gave each villager a 50 kilogram sack of rice, a krama, a sarong and 20,000

riel taxi fare to help them get back home.

The rubber plantation workers came from Chamcar Leu district to Phnom Penh on August

21. They want the plantation owner, who leveled the plantation in July, 2001 and

leased out the land, to give each family a plot of land to allow them to farm.

Another group of 51 households from Kampong Samrong district, are battling a land

dispute with their commune chief. They said that in 1991 he asked them to loan 60

hectares of farmland to shelter refugees who had come back from border camps.

They say that no refugees turned up, and claim the chief sold the land in 1996 to

the Thai Boon Rong company owned by tycoon Teng Bunma. Their case was dismissed by

a judge last month and they decided that their best hope was to come to Phnom Penh

and file a complaint at the Appeal Court.

Fifty yards away was the group of former KR soldiers who had come from Battambang,

Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces. The disabled veterans were here to

press their case for receiving a pension from the government.

Im Lak, a 47-year-old father of seven, arrived on August 1. The group wrote a letter

the following day to the National Assembly (NA) human rights violation committee.

On August 22, the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs wrote a letter to the

co-Ministers of Defence asking them to sort out the problem, but the following day

the police turned up to evict them.

Lak, who lost his leg fighting the Vietnamese, says he will not go home until the

ministry gives him an answer. He says he is frustrated by the conduct of the city's

police, who confiscated a 50 kilogram sack of rice from the group.

"We are hungry, but I think the police must be hungrier than us. Before they

wanted us to move from the front of the National Assembly, but now they want us to

move even from the front of Botum pagoda [on the other side of the park]," Lak

said.

The main eviction took place the day before a visit by Indonesian President Megawati

Sukarnoputri. Police took several hundred villagers out of the park to a temple on

the other side of the Bassac, where they were given food to take home. The rest -

the former Khmer Rouge soldiers and the land dispute victims - stayed behind.

The next day around 50 police - some armed with AK-47s and sidearms, others with

sticks - moved in and told the remaining 200 villagers, former KR soldiers and the

land grab petitioners, to leave. For the next hour and a half, as convoys swept back

and forth along the adjacent road carrying dignitaries to the visiting Indonesian

president, the group stayed huddled under a Bodhi tree, out of sight. The police

later left without evicting them.

A few days earlier, the Palace issued a statement denying it no longer cared about

the poor. Humanitarian aid was available and this would continue to be the case.

"I never ignore my poor countrymen. I always give them humanitarian assistance,"

the statement quoted the King as saying, adding that assistance would continue.

However, it seems the Palace's new policy has not filtered through to the people

in the countryside: only a few days after the police evicted most of the petitioners,

another group of 332 flood victims arrived from Kampong Seila district in Koh Kong

province.

"We came to find help from Samdech Euv, who always helps the people in times

of difficulty," he said. When the Post told the group leader about the Palace's

new policy tacked onto the tamarind tree, he said he knew nothing about it. However,

he added: "If the King does not give us rice, we will continue to stay."

His hope was short-lived. On August 29 more police arrived, this time driving out

all the petitioners.

The park is now empty.

 

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