Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Boeung Tamok Residents Protest Against Canal Project As Excavator, Authorities Descend

Villagers try to stop Prek Pnov district authorities from building a flood mitigation canal, which would affect their homes, stalls and fishing area, February 27, 2024. (CamboJA/ Phon Sothyroth)
Villagers try to stop Prek Pnov district authorities from building a flood mitigation canal, which would affect their homes, stalls and fishing area, February 27, 2024. (CamboJA/ Phon Sothyroth)

Three people were injured when a clash occurred between 40 Boeung Tamok residents and Prek Pnov district authorities as the latter comprising 50 officers began excavating the ground to build a canal early Tuesday morning.

The residents, who were caught off guard, despite an announcement by the authorities on February 19, 2024 regarding the canal construction to reduce flooding in the city, tried to stop the officers from digging the ground. Young children who were ready to go school also joined their parents in the protest against the action. 

Among the protesters were 10 women, who confronted the officers directly, causing one of them to faint while two others sustained injuries. However, the ambulance was not allowed in although it had arrived at the entrance.

“The ambulance is not allowed in. It’s very unfair. You bastard,” a woman was heard shouting in a video taken by CamboJA at the scene.

Resident Tim Ouk, 40, said her child came to tell her around 6am that the authorities had come with an excavator to dig a canal behind the house of another resident Am Phoeun. Immediately, she and 10 other villagers walked along the bridge to get to Phoeun’s house to stop the authorities from digging but they failed.

As the excavator started to strike the ground, people immediately jumped into the water and stood in front of the machine. The officers moved in, erupting in a clash with the residents.

Ouk said during the clash, one of her neighbors fainted while her sister was slapped.

The incident did not only affect the elderly in the community, but also young children who refused to go to school as they wanted to join the protest and protect their home.

“The children did not dare to go to school because they saw what was happening. They were afraid that once they came back they would have no place to live. They too feel the pain like older people.”

Ouk described the district authorities’ action as “very cruel” and “abusive” to her community as there was no compassion at all.

Even though she has no clue over how this issue would be resolved, she urged the government to be considerate and help her community.

“While we have no hope, we still call on newly-appointed prime minister Hun Manet to help,” she said. “We insist on calling him all the time, but he does not seem to see the suffering of his people. I don’t know if he cannot see or does not see.”

Another resident, Sea Davy said a girl, who was injured by fire, was sent home as the doctor “did not want to treat her”. So, they bought medicine and came home. The woman, who fainted during the incident, returned after being examined.

The morning incident was a violation of human rights, Davy said, as people experienced violence amid what seemed like a crackdown on the community under the pretext of a canal development for the benefit of the state. Even if the project’s benefit is true, the authorities should find a solution for the people first, not resort to violence, she stressed.

“The development hurts our whole village,” she said, her voice cracking. “It does not solve our issue even if this development succeeds. All we got were tears, violence and court orders from powerful officials.”

According to her, during the clash, officers from the district authority told her that they had already cleared the canal land elsewhere.

“I have already excavated the canal land, so you need to be prepared for the same in your place. I will continue to excavate your houses.”

A woman fainted during the clash against Prek Pnov district authorities, February 27, 2024. (CamboJA/ Phon Sothyroth)

Prek Pnov district governor Thim Sam An said people can continue to protest but the “project would not stop until it is complete” because the project is for everyone’s benefit and people have been informed about it. Therefore, there is “no reason to stop”.

Responding to the people’s request for fair compensation, he said the authorities now have very good rules and regulations. The Phnom Penh Capital Hall and District Hall have provided solutions to the community. They include land with title deeds and a budget of 10,000 dollars, resettlement with proper infrastructure provided, including water, electricity and sewerage, and somewhere near their present place.

When asked what the plans are after the canal is built, Sam An said the community is living on land “belonging to someone else”, so they are living on another person’s legal land.

The authorities are still requesting people to move. “If they do not want to leave, they can [continue] to live there, but when the government expands the road, they have to leave.”

Commenting on this, resident Tim Ouk said the people refused to relocate because the authorities failed to provide proper solutions and compensation at market prices, which would help people buy land and build a new house. The land, a form of compensation, offered by the authorities is far from schools, hospitals and markets. “People do not know what to do there because the location is on the old state canal with sand.”

She is also worried that her right to home will not be protected based on her current condition where she never got a land title although she has been living for almost 30 years. After the Tuesday morning incident, she said her community might be subjected to forced eviction.

“We’ve been here for 30 years and still have no right to live. What right would we get if we lived there? In future, I might be forcibly evicted because those who refuse to go, will be forcibly evicted.”

CCHR Human Rights coordinator Vann Sophat believes that the authorities are using the development of the canal as a reason to evict the community. Noting that Boeung Tamok covers thousands of hectares, Sophat said there is “more space to implement the project, not just where people live”.

Thus, he urged the government to show a willingness to solve the problem because the area where people live is “very small compared to the whole lake”.

“The issue with Boeung Tamok is if the state is willing to solve it, it can be solved because their land is equal to 0% of the total area of Boeung Tamok. It’s just about four hectares out of more than 3,000 hectares.”

“They should be given a solution to live there by developing the area and acknowledging their rights.”