Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Court Questions Boeung Tamok Residents Accused of Crimes Against Public Officials

Kong Toeur, a vegetable stall owner, and her husband Kim Yorn arrived at Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning on February 14, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Kong Toeur, a vegetable stall owner, and her husband Kim Yorn arrived at Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning on February 14, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

On Wednesday Phnom Penh Municipal Court began questioning Boeung Tamok residents who are being sued by the Prek Pnov district official Sok Ban for alleged intentional violence, property damage and crimes against public officials. The court spoke with one of the seven defendants, with questioning scheduled to continue on Thursday and Friday. 

The suit stems from an incident on December 18 in which Samrong Tbong community residents clashed with Prek Pnov district authorities when the officials attempted to demolish a vegetable stall that was under construction.

Kong Toeur, the owner of the vegetable stall, said the court repeatedly asked her during the three hours of questioning Wednesday if she was violent toward district authorities. 

“It was a waste of time. I begged the court, telling them that our lives were in shambles and we were starving,” she said outside the court Wednesday with a look of exhaustion on her face. “I do not have the money to come up here. I am not just walking here and arriving. I asked the court to drop the charges against us because we are very poor.”

Toeur denied that she had done anything violent to district authorities, and said the lawsuit has made it harder for her to earn income. 

“The question they asked was: Did you beat the authorities or rip an official’s necklace? I said I did not do that. I only begged the authorities to let me build my stall, that’s all,” she said. 

Since 2018 the government has parceled off more than half of Boeung Tamok, one of the last lakes in Phnom Penh, to companies, government agencies and powerful elites who are filling in the lake for real estate developments. Residents living along the lake have been forcibly evicted and continue to face threats of eviction, according to the NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut

Toeur’s husband Kim Yorn appeared in court on Wednesday but his questioning was rescheduled for Thursday. Their 19-year-old daughter is also slated for Thursday questioning, while their two other adult children and a neighbor are scheduled to appear on Friday. An additional resident did not accept the summons issued by the court’s deputy prosecutor Keo Sokbandit.

Boeung Tamok resident Vorn Pha, 34, who waited in front of the court Wednesday with about 40 other community members, said that the whole community will continue to come to support the defendants for the three days of questioning. She said it was difficult for her and her neighbors to find money to pay for travel expenses, but she still managed to come to encourage her summoned neighbors involved in the community land dispute.  

“They have been summoned because of our community matter, so we came to​ encourage them,” she said. “I think they will feel warm because both young and old people, we all came to cheer them on.” 

STT executive director Soeung Saran said the organization’s position is that all charges against the community members should be dropped. He views the conflict as a result of a disagreement over who has rights to the land, and said the authorities are persecuting the residents for exercising their right to protect their interests. Community members could not remain silent when the authorities dismantled a structure on the land they live on, he said. 

“It is natural for humans and animals to protect their lives and their own habitat,” he said. “The use of the judiciary and the refusal of the authorities to resolve this land issue has made it even more difficult for them.”

Saran added that villagers have been living on this land since 1996 and should not be accused of settling there illegally. The community land is outside the lake border as designated in a 2016 sub decree, Saran noted, and will not affect the expansion of the road running next to people’s homes. 

“Therefore, the land should be private land. If they [residents] occupy private land, they should be given the opportunity to become property owners, as defined by law, just like the general population,” he said. 

Phnom Penh court spokesperson Y Rin said he was busy in the meeting when called by a CamboJA reporter Thursday and did not immediately respond to  questions sent in a Telegram message. Court spokesperson Plang Sophal could not be reached for comment.

A few weeks after the December clash, thirty-eight civil society organizations, including STT and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, along with local communities published a joint statement urging the government and authorities to immediately stop harassing Samrong Tbong residents and to issue land titles to the residents.