Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Dozens detained after Kandal airport protest turns violent

Villagers gather to demonstrate in front of police barricades where authorities blocked a road leading to their farmland, which is being cleared to prepare the site for a planned airport in Kandal Stung district, Picture taken on September 12, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Villagers gather to demonstrate in front of police barricades where authorities blocked a road leading to their farmland, which is being cleared to prepare the site for a planned airport in Kandal Stung district, Picture taken on September 12, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Family members of villagers arrested by police while protesting the clearance of their farmland to make way for a new airport in Kandal province are alleging that their relatives are being held hostage to pressure them into accepting the compensation offered for their land. Thirty people were arrested on Sunday ahead of what witnesses describe as widespread police raids, beatings and arrests.

More than 100 people in Kampong Talong village were protesting against the authorities’ blockade of the road leading to their farms, which are being cleared to make way for a new airport despite the fact that many families are still seeking fair compensation for their property. Hundreds of families have been locked in disputes for more than three years over the $1.5 billion airport project developed by Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se.

In tears, 45-year-old villager Bo Leap told CamboJA that both her husband and her 17 -year-old son were arrested after being seriously beaten by police.

“My husband was sleeping in the basement; he did not join the protest, and about ten policemen dragged him out of the house and beat him severely,” she said. “I was so hurt when I saw my husband being beaten before me. My son ran into the villagers’ house and the police broke down the door, grabbed him and beat him.”

Nai Phorn, who has now fled his home for fear of arrest, said that three of his family members including his wife were arrested during the protest.

“My children and I have fled the village and my house is locked for fear of arrest,” he said. “Many villagers’ homes were closed. They [the police] broke into my brother’s house, confiscated a motorbike and a computer as well.”

“I could not say anything because if you were at the scene, this was a heinous act, they beat the protesters and looted houses to arrest people,” he added.

Provincial authorities have accused the villagers of violently attacking police officers during the protest. A video filmed by villagers appeared to show protesters throwing stones at police, although villagers in turn have said that police targeted them with water cannons and fired their guns in the air to try and break up the gathering.

Phorn said that both authorities and the company are pressing people to accept the compensation offered by the company, which a number of villagers have refused for more than three years.

“Hundreds of families’ land has been cleared, but why have they resolved only 11 families affected by the runway? What about the others whose lands have already been cleared?” he asked. “At this stage, we have been kidnapped, and I still disagree with this offer. Now the villagers are scattered because of the pursuit by the police.”

Police use water cannons to disperse protesters. Police had blocked the road to access their farmland in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district, on September 12, 2021. Photo Supplied

Another villager, Toun Vannak, said that authorities were requiring the people they had arrested to show them a copy of their land title as proof of ownership. He alleged that police told them that they would not be released unless they accepted the price offered by the company.

“I think this is a threat, and they’re taking people hostage in exchange for land purchases,” he said. “We are the victims.”

Vannak, who is still on the run from authorities, said that police dressed in civilian clothes had been patrolling the village all night.

“Authorities broke through the door of a villager’s house and confiscated nearly 30 motorcycles, a car, a bulldozer, a printer and a computer,” he said. “I do not know why they confiscated the villagers’ property. If the 30 are not released, we will protest at the provincial hall.”

He said that the arrests were putting a lot of pressure on people to sell their land to the company.

“My land has been completely cleared,” he said. “If we just look with our eyes, I cannot recognize the location of my land.”

Leap said that without being able to access her farmland, she wasn’t sure if the more than two hectares had already been cleared.

“Why can’t I do anything on my own farmland, please Samdech Hun Sen and Lok Chumteav [Bun Rany] open your eyes to see us, how miserable we are,”  she said.

Kandal governor Kong Sophorn declined to comment, saying that he was busy. Lak Mengthy, the provincial bureau chief of minor crime of the Kandal Provincial Police said that the 30 people who had been arrested were being questioned at the provincial police headquarters.

The Kandal provincial administration issued a statement on Sunday saying that authorities had arrested 30 people after more than 100 villagers protested and used violence against authorities, injuring 13 people.

“The authorities deplore the extremist actions of the people who have committed illegal acts that affect the security order and destroy the great interests of the nation,” the statement read. “Authorities are urging citizens to stop the violence and return to a peaceful settlement based on government policies.”

A citizen journalist named Chray Nim was also detained for eight hours on Monday while taking photos and filming the detainees’ relatives who came to the provincial police station to see their families.

She told CamboJA that she was arrested at around 10AM and was released at 6PM.

“When I took some pictures, they came and asked me to the station, and they asked me to ask for permission before reporting or taking pictures,” she said. “This is a threat to the freedom of the press.”

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at rights group Licadho, said that the group was monitoring the case closely.

“There are concerns that without a transparent and just and peaceful solution, the violence and arrests could escalate and could lead to imprisonment,” he said. “And it will worsen the lives of the people and lead to serious criticism of human rights issues in the country.”