Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday questioned two Boeng Tamok community members who were charged in May with assaulting Prek Pnov district authorities. Around 30 people gathered outside the court during the three and a half hour hearing, many to support the community members charged.
Soeun Sreysoth and Sea Davy of the Boeng Tamok lake area testified in front of the court’s investigating judge Lim Sokuntheara. Prak Sophea, who fled to Thailand in August, was also summoned but did not appear in court. The three women were charged on May 29 with “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances and aggravated agitation against public officials” for allegedly hitting authorities with a stick, according to the summons.
“Every day they put pressure on our community. They are abusing us,” said Sreysoth outside the court. “Every day we suffer from the loss of the lake surface, leaving us with no income and now the victims are being sued in court.”
Local residents say on May 9 they blocked dozens of Prek Pnov district government-employed security guards from dismantling a small bridge the neighbors had built to improve their access to fish and vegetables. Around 100 people joined in, one resident said, and successfully blocked the authorities without any violence. More than 10 residents have since been charged, according to Davy.
The offense of “intentional violence” is punishable by up to five years in prison with a maximum fine of 10 million riels, under Article 218 of the penal code. Those convicted of “aggravated agitation against public officials” can face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 2 million riels under Article 504.
Sreysoth said she and Davy recorded video on their phone of the officials actions on May 9, and denied that she assaulted the authorities. She asked why she was just now being questioned more than six months after the incident, arguing that if she had in fact injured district authorities, she would have been arrested right away.
She called for the court to drop the charges against her community, as she is facing two lawsuits while her husband and brother are also being sued.
“We are the victims of abuse by the authorities, not the perpetrators as they alleged,” she said. “I hope that the court will give justice to our community.”
Most of Boeng Tamok, one of Phnom Penh’s last remaining natural lakes, has now been filled in for development following a 2016 sub-decree that allowed the government to rent and sell land in and around the lake. In recent years, parts of the lake have been distributed to companies and wealthy individuals, including political elites such as Kok An and Lanh Pheara, military commanders Vong Pisen and Sao Sokha, and the famous singer Preap Sovath.
Residents of Samrong Tbong village along Boeng Tamok have protested the filling-in of the lake for years. They fear losing their livelihoods fishing and harvesting vegetation from the lake and being evicted from their homes, as they lack nationally-recognized land titles.
According to Davy, as of this month there are 76 houses and 115 families remaining in the village, while 32 families have received compensation from the government to move out of the area.
She reported that the judge asked her when and where she was at that time of the incident and if she had done what was alleged in the authorities’ complaints. She denied the allegations and asked that the charges be dropped.
“They [the authorities] had a duty to protect and serve, but they did not protect and serve. Instead they sued us, intimidated us,” she said. “They came and destroyed the people’s bridge. We are suffering and they sued us.”
Thim Saman, district governor of Prek Pnov, said he was too busy to speak with a CamboJA reporter before hanging up the phone. Court spokesperson Sous Vityearady could not be reached for comment.
Am Sam Ath, operations director at the human rights group Licadho, believes that the complaints filed by the authorities are inappropriate because officials should be helping to resolve issues, not adding to the residents’ problems. He urged the court to drop the charges against the community members, who are already suffering from threats to their homes and land.
“It’s not a good solution, but rather [the lawsuits] create pain, dissatisfaction or lead to protests,” he said. “The authorities and the community or the government should find a peaceful solution that is mutually acceptable to end the issue, rather than causing more problems.”