Phnom Penh Municipality Defends Beating Up Own Citizens, Could Hire Better Copy-Writer

The Phnom Penh Municipality put up a post Sunday defending last Tuesday’s violent evictions of residents of the Borei Keila slum neighborhood – evictions where 30 villagers and 34 officers were injured in the ensuing fray.

The Municipality claims that “many homes were provided to majority of them, and the small remaining has not accepted those homes at all and yet they demands for extra things.”

Considering that 300 families have been left homeless due to the Phan Imex company’s decision to build only 8 of 10 promised apartment complexes, this is one profoundly weak argument.

Yes, people were mad: they were mad because what was offered to these 300 forgotten was a bleak, empty moonspace of dirt. The residents of Borei Keila were promised alternate housing: they did not expect this to mean a tent pitched in an empty field without electricity or toilets, far from their former homes.

According to the Municipality, a “joined force of the onsite commission”  went to the community to “give information  to people who are not qualified to get homes from the government such as those who built shelters without proper permit or buy units from others, and the commission, through its observation, required those who already received homes but rent to other and demanded for another one to remove their temporary shelters immediately.”

The English is broken, but the Municipality’s release makes it sound like a peaceful group of guys armed with nothing but clip-boards went to Borei Keila to tell a group of stubborn, no good-squatters to please move off private property.

The Municipality is also blatantly accusing the Borei Keila evictees who are still living on the site of renting out their oh-so-lovely government appointed homes to others, or greedily requesting another one of those aforementioned oh-so-lovely government appointed homes.

As someone who has been out to the Borei Keila slum site, I can readily assure you that very few people would live there if they had a shinier, newer option available.

Than there’s the niggling matter of violence. The Municipality makes it sound like aforementioned nice-dudes-with-clipboards were viciously set upon by armed villagers, and had no choice but to defend themselves.

I don’t discount that a villager probably did (quite literally) throw the first stone – and perhaps a couple Molotov cocktails – but the fact that the police responded with rubber bullets, rock, tear gas and riot shields indicates they weren’t exactly passive victims.

Further, the fact that the Municipality took such an armada of equipment with them indicates they fully expected the villagers would not peacefully shrug and pack up their things – belying the statement’s seeming assumption that this explosion of violence was a big surprise.

I watched these kids play a rousing game of Riot Police Against Villagers the other day. Nicely done, Phnom Penh.

30 villagers were injured in the fray, and 34 police. The Municipality makes no mention of the villagers injuries. No mention is made of the 8 villagers arrested in the fray is made.

The arrest (and release) of three soldier members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit and recent-returnees from Preah Vihear isn’t mentioned either.

What’s the Municipality’s official version of the violence?

“After that (the first thrown rock) competent forces took appropriate measures to handle the situation with those people and removed settlements which are not qualified as homes set by the Government. Doing so is to ensure the state of law and to do justice to more than a thousand families who have voluntarily accepted homes from the Government in Borey Keila.”

Right – the battle against the evictees was waged to “do justice” to those more than a thousand families who were given slots in the 8 apartment buildings Phan Imex managed to build. This important detail is also, curiously enough, missing from the Municipality’s statement.

Here’s another interesting facet of these anti-eviction protests, both at Boueng Kak and Borei Keila: government authorities seem to believe that political figures, foreigners, and NGOs are provoking the slum-dwellers into action, not the slum-dwellers themselves.

According to the municipality, protesters were “provoked to protest or trigger other actions by some misbehavior propagating from some politicians in order to insert pressure on public authorities only to demonstrate that they deserve the full rights to obtain more homes from the government.”

It is apparantly beyond the comprehension of Phnom Penh city leaders that poor Cambodians could independently become outraged over being booted out of their homes and given little to nothing in return. Do Cambodia’s rich really take such a low view of their poor counterparts?

I’m forced to conclude that they do – that they assume the people of Borei Keila are “too simple” to come up with the concept of protesting and demonstrating public outrage on their own. Sure, government and NGO leaders – some of them foreigners – have assisted Cambodian evictees with protest tactics.

But these protest tactics are self-propagating, as was proved this week outside the US Embassy when Boueng Kak Lake evictee representatives showed up to support the Borei Keila contingent. They fired up the crowd, offered advice and sympathy, and provided instruction on how to fight back against the powers that be.

Most importantly, the Boueng Kak victims implored the residents of Borei Keila not to give up and not to stand down.

From the looks of things, the people of Borei Keila have taken this advice to heart. Protests are planned outside Hun Sen’s house and the Royal Palace. Thus far, only the European Union has committed to taking up the matter with the Cambodian government. We can only hope other nations will follow.

The Municipality’s statement is even more evidence that the city of Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government care little about the poor—and take a very low view of their intelligence.

Refusing to accept that the 300 forgotten families of Borei Keila may have a real grievance, they are instead demonized by their own elected leaders as violent rabble-rousers too spoilt to accept what has generously been given to them.

If this dismissive and demeaning attitude towards Cambodia’s poor is allowed to continue, the future of human rights in the Kingdom looks dark indeed.