The presence of dozens of riot police yesterday swiftly ended the first day of Boeung Kak land-rights activist Yorm Bopha’s planned month-long protest in the capital’s Freedom Park.
At virtually the same time, Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, visited a rival Boeung Kak group at imprisoned activist Tep Vanny’s house in Village 22, a meeting that attracted no attention at all from authorities.
On Monday, City Hall refused to allow Bopha’s group – about 60 people from various dispute-afflicted communities – to use Freedom Park.
Despite this, they arrived yesterday morning to ready to begin what Bopha promised would be a more interesting way of protesting than is usually seen on the capital’s streets.
However, when confronted by riot police armed with batons and shields and Daun Penh district security guards, the protesters quickly retreated to an area near Wat Phnom.
“They do not have the right to gather and protest in Freedom Park without permission from City Hall,” said a district security officer who declined to give his name. “We have the authority to arrest them and hand them over to police if they do not comply with public orders.”
Although police and security officers soon far outnumbered protesters, Bopha said that her group’s protest would continue.
“I think this is injustice for the poor community members like us,” she said. “We need solutions to end the disputes, but the authorities keep postponing it from one year to another and arresting people.”
Across Monivong Boulevard at Boeung Kak, Subedi, on his last tour of Cambodia before relinquishing his position in March, voiced similar frustrations to community members whose protest paths are fast diverging from Bopha’s, despite their common goals.
“The problems of the Boeung Kak lake area and the issues that you have been confronting have figured prominently in many of my reports and statements,” Subedi told community leaders Bov Sophea and Chan Puthisak and their supporters. “I have brought it to the attention of the prime minister himself and other ministers.”
Subedi said he had been assured “every time” that the government would resolve the land issues in consultation with the villagers. “I find it frustrating that your problems have still not been resolved and you are still experiencing so many difficulties,” he said.
But Subedi will not get the chance to raise the issue directly with Prime Minister Hun Sen again.
“We understand that the prime minister is unable to meet with the special rapporteur during the current mission. Mr Subedi is expected to meet with senior government officials during the week,” said Bushra Rahman, a spokeswoman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Court of Appeal will hear the case of 11 activists – many of them women from Boeung Kak – on Thursday. They were arrested in November for protesting and swiftly given one-year prison sentences. The first seven arrested were trying to draw attention to flooding at Boeung Kak.
“I was very sorry to learn that your homes were flooded and many of your communities’ leaders fighting for your rights arrested and prosecuted,” Subedi said, before also visiting land evictees at Borei Keila.
Subedi also met with leaders of several labour unions and rights advocates during his visit.
Dave Welsh, country director for labour-rights group Solidarity Center, said he had made it clear to Subedi that the recent garment wage increase – to $128 per month – did not indicate harmony in the sector.
“I really want to emphasise to everyone that nothing from last January has been resolved,” said Welsh. “I certainly wouldn’t want to leave him with the impression that all is resolved.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEAN TEEHAN AND SHANE WORRELL