SOS Obama protests gain traction

 Khouth Sophak Chakrya, The Phnom Penh Post. 19 2012

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Children make a house in the sand at Boeung Kak lake during a protest in Phnom Penh, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, by a group of villagers from several communities affected by land grabs. Photograph: Khouth Sophak Chakrya/Phnom Penh Post

Capitalising on recent worldwide attention to their plight, some 200 villagers who say they’ve been robbed of their homes and land staged a vivid and stylised protest yesterday aimed at President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling for intervention in Phnom Penh’s land-titling crisis.

Boeung Kak and Borei Keila land activists, among others, took to the sand plateau of what was once a lakeside community bearing enormous “SOS” signs with the faces of US leaders in what they promise is the first of many protests timed to coincide with the ASEAN summit.

Despite recently being thrown in a prison cell for similar “SOS” actions at the Thmarkol community near Phnom Penh airport, 34-year-old Chhay Nem joined in the protest.

“I will not fear another arrest; I am not breaking the law,” Nem said, putting aside her fears for her personal safety for the protection of her home. As well as a scrum of international media, the protestors were surrounded by hundreds of riot and district police, with metal crowd control barriers blocking all exits to the former lake area.

After a peaceful face-off between the authorities and the protestors, crowds dwindled throughout the afternoon with a small squadron of police remaining close to the Boeung Kak community at the time of going to press.

Rights groups blasted the police presence as another form of menace on freedom of expression in Cambodia.

“Deploying hundreds of forces to prevent villagers to go outside their village is to reveal that freedom of expression is limited in Cambodia,” Community Legal Education Centre’s Moeun Tola said.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said last week authorities would take any necessary “administrative measures” if protestors caused public disorder or threatened security.

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