More than 100 police and security guards, including riot squad members, were deployed to the capital’s Boeung Kak lake community yesterday to block a protest that, at times, involved only three shouting women.
About 50 members of the Boeung Kak community tried to march from Village 22 in the capital’s Daun Penh district to the Council of Ministers to demand authorities overturn fellow Boeung Kak activist Yorm Bopha’s guilty verdict and resolve their years-long land dispute.
Police and municipal security guards placed roadblocks across the main exits from Boeung Kak at about 7am, preventing activists converging on the Peace Palace, where representatives from more than 120 countries have been convening as part of the UNESCO 37th World Heritage Committee meetings.
The protesters at first tried to push past the barricades before many retreated to the sand dunes of the now filled-in lake, where they burned 11 straw effigies of “corrupt officials” and held UNESCO’s and visiting countries’ flags.
This left only three women standing eye to eye with throngs of police.
“We had to block them in,” one police officer told reporters. “We’re afraid they will stop traffic outside the Council of Ministers.”
Blocked entrances spurned drivers trying to enter or leave, while many of the police protecting the barricades had little to do – a point underscored by the fact some of them were asleep.
Housing Rights Taskforce secretariat director Sia Phearum said he was disappointed the government had denied the protesters their right to freedom of expression.
“The government was afraid they would protest in front of the Council of Ministers,” he said. “They’re scared to lose their credibility with other countries. But I don’t think this kind of thing works.”
The crackdown brought back memories of police threatening to detain children and other street sellers in order to “protect” world leaders visiting for last November’s ASEAN summit.
It also bore resemblance to the treatment of villagers detained before the same summit for spray-painting SOS on their roofs near the Phnom Penh International Airport to attract the attention of visiting US President Barack Obama.
Chan Putisak, a representative of Boeung Kak’s Village 1 community said yesterday he had wanted to tell the foreign delegates that he had yet to receive a land title.
“And we wanted to . . . ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene,” he said. “But police blocked us.”
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Choun Sovann hung up the phone yesterday when asked about the roadblocks.
Long Dimanche, a spokesman for Phnom Penh Municipal Hall, could not be reached for comment.