By Kaing Menghun And Chin Chan, The Cambodia Daily, June 19, 2013
At least two protesters fainted and a third was injured yesterday after Boeung Kak villagers clashed with police in front of the Royal Palace.
Some 30 residents, including approximately a dozen children, descended on the palace yesterday in the hope of submitting a petition to Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, pleading for a birthday intervention on behalf of imprisoned activist Yorm Bopha.
More than 100 hoped to join the protest but, like the day before, were blocked from leaving their Daun Penh community by a phalanx of police officers.
The handful who made it to the palace, however, were met by more than 60 officers and riot police, who quickly cracked down on the protesters.
Security forces grabbed at portraits of Bopha, enraging the activists who began hitting at the officers with sarongs and attempting to push them back.
Municipal police chief Choun Sovann later defended the actions, saying tight security was necessary given the ongoing UNESCO conference.
After the brief clash, the protesters stood back, and began reading their petition over loudspeakers. The group dispersed after two officials from the palace came out and received the letter.
The embattled community has been calling for the release of the activist who last week lost her appeal over convictions of intentional violence. Arrested in September, Bopha stands accused of masterminding an attack on two motodops – a charge she and her supporters call politically motivated.
According to human rights group Licadho, Bopha filed an appeal with the Sup-reme Court on Monday.
Speaking at the protest, fellow activist Tep Vanny insisted the group had no intention to clash with the authorities.
“We came here only to submit our petition asking the Queen Mother to help intervene and free Yorm Bopha because she has not committed as accused.”
Rights groups have continued condemning the Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold a guilty verdict against Boeung Kak land-rights activist Yorm Bopha, saying that “weak” evidence and “inconsistent” testimony failed to link her to an axe and screwdriver attack on two motodops.
The 29-year-old mother will remain in prison, possibly until September next year, after judges rejected her appeal on Friday, but suspended one year of her three-year sentence.
Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Rupert Abbott, who was in court for the case, called for Bopha’s immediate release.
“There was inconsistency in testimony and really weak evidence. To suggest she was involved seems really far-fetched,” he said yesterday.
Abbott said the presumption of innocence had been missing from the trial, suggesting “outside influences are at work again”.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a statement that it was outraged the “bogus” conviction against Bopha had been upheld.
“The accounts of the alleged victims were often convoluted and did not corroborate,” the statement said.
At the end of the four-hour hearing, judges changed the intentional violence charge against Bopha to a charge of masterminding an assault.
Presiding Judge Taing Sun Lay said Bopha ordered her brothers Yorm Kanlong and Yorm Seth to carry out an attack on motodops Nget Chet, 28, and Vath Thaiseng, 24, last August.
Speaking outside court, Bopha’s husband, Lous Sakhon, vowed to appeal the decision.
“I think the Supreme Court might support all the other courts, but I will still appeal because I want to show the whole world what justice is like in Cambodia,” said the 56-year-old, who was given a suspended prison term last December over the same incident.
During the hearing, Vath Sareth, the father and uncle of the motodops, said he knew “clearly” that Kanlong and Seth had attacked the motodops. But when pressed further he said he had overheard only later that the brothers were the attackers.
“I don’t know who [stabbed my son] because there were many people around and it was confusing,” he said.
In a closing statement, prosecutor Than Seng Narong said Bopha and her husband masterminded the violence but added he did not know why authorities had imprisoned “the woman in this case and not the man”.
Bopha’s lawyer, Ham Sunrith, said witnesses and evidence presented had failed to prove Bopha was guilty.
When the motodops’ lawyer, Neang Hay, disagreed, the usually calm Bopha began shouting, interrupting to demand he solemnly swear the evidence he had presented was true.
Boeung Kak housing-rights activist Tep Vanny said yesterday that her community would continue protests and take straw effigies of “corrupt officials” to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house today, urging his intervention.
The contentious dispute over the residents displaced from Phnom Penh’s lakeside district has been captured in a photography exhibition now on display at Meta House.
French photographer Jean-Francois Perigois, a resident of Cambodia for the past five years, has spent the past 18 months compiling the works, in the process repeatedly raising the ire of police officers stationed to keep the Boeung Kak development site away from prying eyes.
Attempts by authorities to prevent documentation of the dramatic changes in the neighbourhood’s landscape are what Perigois has sought to remedy with his latest collection,Boeung Kak Was A Lake.
“Of course, it’s a controversial issue,” he says. “But I’m a witness. I’m just providing a picture, and hopefully discussion comes from there. People should be able to talk, to explain and to say why this is happening.”
The elegantly framed exhibition highlights the dichotomy between Boeung Kak’s lingering residents and the machinery of development that has drained the lake and flattened surrounding buildings.
In Watchers, two moto drivers with their backs to the lens gaze out from an overpass into the barren gulf of what was once a thriving community, while Death by the Mud depicts a lone man staring balefully into the distance while perched on a drainage pipe being used to clear the lake’s water.
In 2007, Shukaku Inc, a development consortium with ties to the Cambodian People’s Party, was granted a 99-year lease for land around the Boeung Kak area.
More than 4,000 residents have been moved from the site as a result of subsequent development works.
The issue of the remaining families flared up again late last month, with the arrest of 13 Boeung Kak women who were supporting a family trying to build a new home on land they were evicted from two years earlier.
Before their trial, monk and rights activist Loun Savath was briefly detained for leading a protest rally against the arrests.
For the photographer, the story of Boeung Kak epitomises the fraught and uncertain path of Cambodia’s recent economic development.
“It’s so sad to see the destruction of an area that should be a public space,” Perigois says. “The country has evolved a great deal in the past 10 years, but sometimes in the wrong way.
“Even though it has become less poor in that time, the social distortion between rich and poor has in many respects become larger.”
Boeung Kak Was A Lake will be on display at Meta House until Sunday, June 24.
Boeung Kak demonstrators left the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh disappointed yesterday after their petition calling for the release of 15 Boeung Kak lake residents locked in Prey Sar prison was not accepted.
About 50 villagers, flanked by supporters, marched to the palace from the National Assembly to deliver the petition, intended for King Norodom Sihanomi.
However, police rather than palace officials awaited their arrival and issued them clear instructions to disperse.
“I would like to ask [demonstrators] to leave five representatives here to submit the petition and others to break up,” deputy chief of Daun Penh district police Lim Hong said.
Yorm Bopha, a Boeung Kak lake resident and spokeswoman, said villagers had been too scared to leave the five representatives, fearing the police would arrest them – like they had the 15 prisoners the demonstrators were trying to free.
“We would like all the villagers who support the submission of the petition to wait [here] and we five will go to present them with the petition,” she said.
When no palace officials came to accept it, the villagers left for their homes.
“We really pity all the villagers – they have no choice but to come to ask for intervention from the King, but no palace official came to accept their petition,” Neop Ly, program officer at the Housing Rights Task Force, said.
Earlier, the group asked the National Assembly for a response to a request they made last month asking for 12.44 hectares of land at Boeung Kak to be demarcated.
They were told they will receive a response today, Yorm Bopha said.
The demonstrators were in a group of more than 300, some of whom wore animal masks and held banners for World Environment Day as they urged the government to protect the nation’s forests and resources.
Vorn Pov, the president of Independent Democratic Economy Association, one NGO involved, said the government needed to prevent illegal activity in forests.
“We plead the government … to seriously punish officials who are found in collusion with illegal loggers,” he said.
Members of the King’s cabinet could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Thirteen Boeung Kak women locked in Prey Sar prison after a three-hour trial on May 24 are threatening to go on a hunger strike in protest, an opposition Sam Rainsy lawmaker said yesterday.
A team of SRP MPs, including Mu Sochua, was granted access to the prison yesterday to check on the health and well-being of the 13 and another Boeung Kak woman, Ly Chanary, who was arrested outside the women’s trial.
“They told us their health is OK and none of them are being tortured, but they miss their families,” lawmaker Keth Khy said, adding that the MPs had been the first visitors the women had been allowed to see.
“The women told us they want to hunger strike. We asked them not to do this and accepted their request for us to approach the King to ask for their release,” he said.
Mu Sochua left for the US after the visit, where she will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Keth Ky said.
“Mu Sochua has promised to ask her to intervene,” he said.
Mu Sochua called for Clinton to take action immediately after the women’s three-hour trial and sentencing.
“I’m calling on the international community to suspend aid,” she told the Post on May 24, adding that financial contributions from overseas should no longer be given directly to the government, but to NGOs.
Families, friends and supporters of the Boeung Kak 15, which also includes Sao Sareoun, a man, visited Prey Sar on May 26, but were not allowed in.
The 13 women were arrested at Boeung Kak lake on May 22.
They were charged two days later with disputing authority and illegally occupying land owned by Shukaku, CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s firm.
Ly Chanary and Sao Sareoun were later charged with the same offences.