Kandal provincial police have arrested 30 people after a clash with protesters on September 12 over a land dispute at the new Phnom Penh International Airport construction site in Kandal Stung district’s Boeung Khyang commune.
The clash left 13 officers and an unknown number of protesters injured.
According to the Kandal Provincial Administration, on the morning of September 12 a group of about 100 people gathered at the site where they allegedly insulted officers while burning tires and other items.
It said the protesters carried sticks and used slingshots to fire stones and molotov cocktail at police forces that were there to maintain security and order.
In response, it said officers dispersed the protesters with tear gas and arrested 30 of them. They were brought in for questioning at the Kandal provincial police station.
"[We] regret having to respond to the actions of a group of extremists who were committing illegal acts that affected public order and security in a manner contrary to national interests," the provincial hall said in a statement.
Khim Somaly, a representative speaking on behalf of more than 300 families involved in the land dispute, said on September 14 that 21 out of the 30 people who were arrested at the protests have now been released, while the other nine have had their cases sent to provincial court.
“They are detaining them and accusing them of trying to kill police officers with farming tools and knives. Long story short, now the law is after them and whatever the law wants to do is right and whatever we do will be wrong,” she said.
Provincial governor Kong Sophoan told The Post on September 13 that authorities had deployed about 400 police officers to prevent problems at the airport construction site.
However, the protesters there became angry and used violence towards the police causing injury to 13 officers, in some cases serious injuries that required hospitalisation.
"We have fire engines deployed. Later the people dispersed to their respective houses. Those who were the bravest have been arrested. We are allowing the police to question them according to procedures," he said.
Sophoan said the provincial hall stood firm and was solving land issues for the people at the project site in accordance with legal principles. First, the people are to swap their land with state land and then the state will buy their land for $8 per square metre in principle.
Khim Somaly, a representative of more than 300 families locked in the land dispute, said that before the clash about 200 people were there trying to stop the construction company’s machinery from clearing the land that was still under dispute, but about 400 police officers had put up barricades to prevent them from entering, leading to the altercation.
"This violence was caused by the police who barricaded the area and kept us from preventing the machinery from clearing our land. So the people were angry and then clashes occurred," she said.
She added that only 16 out of the more than 300 families involved had agreed to solve the issues with the provincial hall by accepting $8 per square metre, while the rest had made no such agreement.
She said the market price of the land at the construction site was currently at more than $100 per square metre so they cannot accept the $8 offer. They are demanding a compromise solution of $80 per square metre.
Thuon Vannak, 45, whose land dispute has not yet been resolved, said some villagers were beaten by police officers and one person had his leg broken.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group Licadho, said civil society organisations (CSOs) working in the field of human rights were concerned about these land disputes and the possibility of further violence and arrests.
“The clashes have happened on a large scale and have escalated into violence and the detention or arrest of about 30 people on September 12. This is a large number of arrests for people in land disputes,” he said.
He said CSOs such as Licadho were insisting that the case be resolved in a transparent, fair and peaceful manner so that violence does not take place and no further arrests are made.
Sam Ath continued that the violence was causing injuries on both sides and posed difficulties for the protesters’ lives and for the government who will undoubtedly face criticism and accusations of human rights abuses if such a clash continues.
Rights group Adhoc spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna said his organisation had already received complaints from residents seeking intervention in resolving land disputes and relating to human rights violations in the area.
"If we look at the law, the people who own the land have a legal title. So even if the land is taken to be used as public property by the state, the people must be compensated at market prices. They cannot be forced [to accept under-valued compensation]," he said.
Provincial police chief Chhoeun Sochet could not be reached for comment on September 13.