A march by 300 villagers from 99 communities to mark World Habitat Day was marred by violence yesterday after Daun Penh district security guards beat up five people en route to the Ministry of Land Management, including an observer from human rights group Licadho.
The march, which consisted of villagers affected by land disputes and supporting NGOs, started at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theatre and was headed towards Freedom Park, when the group decided to change course to the Ministry of Land Management to deliver petitions.
The brawl started when the Daun Penh guards – notorious for numerous bloody crackdowns in the wake of the 2013 elections – snatched a drum from a villager, with a tussle ensuing between both sides. Security guards then started beating up Boeung Kak community representative Chan Puthisak, when Licadho’s monitoring manager Am Sam Ath attempted to defuse the situation. “I saw the man being beaten and thought it could get serious, so I asked them to stop beating him,” Sam Ath said. “I just said that and then security guards started to beat me.”
Sam Ath received injuries to his mouth and face, and has lodged a complaint with the Chey Chumneah commune police station in Daun Penh district. “I want the police to take legal action on this case,” he added.
Additionally, freelance reporter Sarim Sarun was left bleeding from his head after being hit with a walkie-talkie, and former Boeung Kak resident Sat Pha received injuries to her shoulder and face. “They just beat us without saying anything,” Pha said. “The government never cares about our concerns – we just want justice.”
According to a City Hall notice dated October 8, the group had permission to assemble at Freedom Park, with only 10 land representatives allowed to deliver petitions to the Land Management Ministry.
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said the group had violated their agreement by conducting the march and that officers were only trying to stop them from changing their route.
“The security guards did not beat them. We do not know who started the trouble first,” he said. In the afternoon, ministry official Heu Chanda met with the protesters at Freedom Park to accept their petitions, saying that the ministry was working to find a solution to their disputes but that it would take time.
A statement signed by 60 groups yesterday condemned the attack on the peaceful march, calling it another example of the government’s “restrictive environment for the peaceful exercise of fundamental freedoms”.
Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said the government’s lack of accountability and transparency had let land disputes spread like a “cancer” across the nation. And their inability to address these issues had forced villagers to take to the streets, he added.
Soeung Saran, advocacy manager at Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, meanwhile, said little progress had been made to address disputants’ grievances. “They [the ministry] have solved some problems in the provinces, but in Phnom Penh there is not much noticeable difference,” he said.
Additional Reporting by Ananth Baliga