Protesters, including a band of angry monks, clashed with military and riot police on Thursday in Phnom Penh as authorities tried to prevent a local housing rights group from carrying out a rally against forced evictions.
Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), a coalition of five local rights NGOs, had announced plans to march from Wat Phnom to nearby City Hall on Monivong Boulevard to deliver a petition against forced evictions but were told on Wednesday by the municipality that they would not be allowed to do so.
Starting at about 8 a.m., a stream of evictees from 50 communities in Phnom Penh and from as far away as Oddar Meanchey province took to the plaza in front of Wat Phnom to mark World Habitat Day and to call for solutions for victims of forced evictions.
“City Hall removed us and forced us to live outside Phnom Penh—we lost our businesses and schools, and today we are still suffering,” Sea Nareth, a 56-year-old evictee from the Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak Lake community, told the crowd of more than 600 through a loudspeaker.
“From owning a house to not having anything—that is the efforts of this government,” she added.
At the park across from Wat Phnom, about 80 riot police and security guards watched on as a man—resting on a police truck mounted with a P.A. system, and identifying himself to reporters only as “an authority”—attempted to drown out the speakers with his own monologue.
“This is not celebrating World Habitat Day—this is creating confusion and problems for the people,” said the man, who harangued the rally-goers for almost the entirety of the two hours that eviction victims took to the plaza stage to speak.
“City Hall has given permission for you to hold this ceremony at your office in Meanchey district,” he added, saying that police had closed off the road surrounding Wat Phnom and would act to prevent any marching.
A string of protesters making their way from the center of the rally to buy food and drinks on the road around Wat Phnom occasionally stopped to yell insults at the man—each referring to him as “the deplorable speaker”—before continuing on their way.
Around 10 a.m., after a brief scuffle broke out when a human rights observer from a local NGO accused a police officer of attempting to break her camera by punching it, rally organizers lifted a 2-meter-long wooden house above their shoulders and began their march to deliver it and their petition to City Hall on Monivong Boulevard.
Riot police moved to protect the barricaded entrance from Wat Phnom to Street 96, which connects the monument to Monivong Boulevard.
The police, unable to withstand a force of about 15 monks who simply marched over the police line near the U.S. Embassy’s northeastern corner, then ran toward Monivong Boulevard.
Protesters later sidestepped a formation of military police deployed near the entrance to the boulevard, as bemused travelers continued to drive past.
“We’re just protesting to demand peace and freedom—why can’t we?” one of the monks who had pushed past the riot police shouted to the military police.
Ten minutes after protesters had departed Wat Phnom, a final wave of military police overran rally leaders in front of City Hall on Monivong Boulevard, wrestling their wooden house to the ground twice and tearing it apart in an unwittingly symbolic act of destruction during a tussle that took place in the middle of the road.
Military police closed off the boulevard for the next half hour, cornering the protesters in front of City Hall as municipal authorities negotiated the handing over of the petition from the rally leaders, while other protesters and military police traded low-flying water bottles across a tense police line.
“All of you officials have very high educations, but you are very rude,” one of the protesters shouted to the authorities, as the security forces used their batons and shields to force the protesters away from City Hall.
Around 11 a.m., an hour after the rally had left Wat Phnom, six petitioners emerged from City Hall having delivered their petition, demanding solutions for victims of land-grabbing, the end to future land-grabbing and the release of jailed Boeng Kak Lake anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha.
Chan Puthisak, one of the six petitioners who had been allowed to enter City Hall, said that City Hall’s administrative department chief, Keut Chhe, had promised to deliver the petition to municipal governor Pa Socheatvong.
“He has promised to inform us within a week where the letter is,” Mr. Puthisak said, adding that more rallies would follow if solutions were not found.
“I believe the government will change its behavior and they will order local authorities to find solutions for all of us, but we are going to continue to protest if City Hall does not find justice for us,” he said.
Adhoc, one of the five local NGOs that make up HRTF, the rally’s organizer, released a statement Thursday afternoon condemning the behavior of police at the rally and saying that five protesters had been injured by police.
Chan Soveth, the deputy head of monitoring for Adhoc, said at the close of the rally that if authorities had simply allowed petitioners to deliver the letter to City Hall, the event could have been conducted with a minimum amount of fuss.
“We have seen that authorities seem incapable to organize events like this for the protesters, and I think this violence would not have occurred today if they had just sent their officials out to receive our petition here,” he said.
“I understand that the use of hundreds of police this time was to break the spirit of the protesters, but the people are not afraid because they think that the police would not be courageous enough to use violence on all of them.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)
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