PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian police beat demonstrators who marched to the prime minister's house Wednesday to protest being evicted from their homes, a confrontation that highlights how contentious the issue of land grabbing is this election year.
Nearly 100 protesters, mostly women, marched to Prime Minister Hun Sen's home in the middle of Phnom Penh to petition him to provide land they claim was promised them when they were evicted from their homes in the capital's Boueng Kak lake area to make way for a luxury real estate development.
About 100 police began beating demonstrators when they tried to push through their lines, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. At least two protesters suffered apparent broken limbs and were taken to a hospital by fellow demonstrators. At least four others — including a 72-year-old woman — fell unconscious, though it was unclear whether it was from being beating. Scores of other protesters nursed cuts and bruises from being pushed and kicked.
"The police forces beat us like they do to animals. They treated us, peaceful protesters, as badly as the Khmer Rouge did," said a crying 42-year-old woman, Eng Houy, comparing the authorities to the genocidal rulers of Cambodia in the 1970s.
The Boueng Kak dispute is a high-profile example of the evictions and land grabs that have become a volatile social problem nationwide, with deadly force sometimes employed. Activists link the deals to corruption and cronyism.
The issue is seen as a weak point in Hun Sen's administration as it faces a general election in July. His Cambodian People's Party is all but assured a victory, but the opposition may be able to pick up some parliamentary seats due to popular anger over land grabbing.
The Boueng Kak land was awarded by the government to a Chinese company for commercial development with a hotel, office buildings and luxury housing. The protesters demand land titles they said had been promised by Hun Sen's government. The city government resettled some families, but did not include them, they claimed.
Since their eviction, the primarily female protesters have kept up the pressure, even though public dissent is discouraged under Hun Sen's often heavy-handed government.
Last May, 13 of the protesters were sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation of land, when they tried to rebuild their homes on the land where their houses were demolished by the developers in 2010.
An appeals court judge upheld their convictions in June, but ordered them freed on the grounds that they were unfamiliar with the law, did not resist arrest and had children to take care of. Several of the protesters had staged a hunger strike prior to the order to free them.