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Police officers confront a Budhhist monk while land-rights advocates gather at Wat Phnom to mark International Habitat Day
Police officers confront a Budhhist monk while land-rights advocates gather at Wat Phnom to mark International Habitat Day. Pha Lina

Scuffles at land rights protest

Demonstrators clashed with police during a rally marking World Habitat Day yesterday, resulting in minor injuries, as some 300 monks and community representatives gathered near Wat Phnom against municipal orders.

Wearing T-shirts reading “Rural and Urban Poor Formalisation”, protesters and representatives from about 50 communities decried the Kingdom’s policy of granting economic land concessions to industry, throwing residents off their land.

“If the government supports development, it should go about it in a way that does not harm its citizens,” said Chea Naret, a Boeung Kak community representative who was evicted and relocated 40 kilometres from the city centre. Members of her community, Naret said, have the same rights as everyone else, despite their socioeconomic status.

Duch Chantha, who was evicted from her home in Dey Krahom nearly five years ago, said government-sponsored land grabs leave families homeless and move children too far away from their schools to continue attending.

The police’s show of force at the demonstration and the government’s claims that the demonstration had been banned as a protective measure perplexed Chantha.

“Protect what?” Chantha asked. “They just come to spray tear gas and fire weapons at us, like we have encountered when they came to bulldoze our houses.”

A sort of battle of decibels developed between demonstrators and the approximately 200 police, as officers – armed with riot shields and batons – used loudspeakers to drown out the protest speeches.

Land rights activists rally yesterday near Wat Phnom to mark International Habitat Day
Land rights activists rally yesterday near Wat Phnom to mark International Habitat Day. Pha Lina

“All people and organisations involved here never respect the law and are always causing anarchy in Phnom Penh,” a police officer said over a loudspeaker. “The government did not silence your rights, and nowadays you have far too many rights; the government is always creating happiness and security.”

At about 10am, the demonstrators marched to City Hall, demanding authorities allow them to deliver a petition signed by representatives of communities affected by land grabs and NGOs, but riot police blocked their way.

As protesters tried to push through police, five people suffered minor injuries, Neil Loughlin, a technical assistant with rights group Adhoc, said. A monk was hit in the nose and another in the back of the head, while two protesters from Boeung Kak and one from Borei Keila received unspecified injuries, he said.

None of the five people Adhoc reported injured were hospitalised, Loughlin said.

“I don’t think it’s effective to [send] battalions of military police when the masses are trying to deliver a petition,” Loughlin said. “I would say there should be no violence used by the military police against protesters.”

After a brief negotiation, officials at City Hall allowed five representatives into the building to deliver the petition, Loughlin said.

Neither Chuon Sovan, Phnom Penh police chief, nor City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche could be reached.

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