(New York) – Cambodian security personnel used excessive force against housing rights protesters occupying an unfinished building in Phnom Penh on February 14, 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces beat and otherwise assaulted protesting residents in the neighborhood of Borei Keila, injuring at least five, including a pregnant woman and two teenagers. Another resident was reportedly hit by a rock. Three of the injured required hospital treatment.
“The latest use of brutal force by police against protesters shows how far the Cambodian authorities are from delivering on promises of reform,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Donors should tell the Cambodian government that they will only consider financing the Cambodian government for infrastructure or direct budget support once it has implemented meaningful reforms, including an end to crackdowns on civil society and a halt to forced evictions.”
On February 12, several dozen destitute families occupied parts of a construction site in Borei Keila. The neighborhood is the site of a dispute that began in 2007 between then residents of the area and the Phanimex Development Company, owned by the businesswoman Suy Sophan, who is close to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, and who also has strong links with Chinese investors in Cambodia. The government granted Phanimex 2.6 hectares of Borei Keila land, in return for which the company promised to build 10 apartment blocks for residents who had to leave their old homes. However, only eight buildings were built and made available for the displaced families. Those left out resorted to living among garbage dumps in Borei Keila.
Phnom Penh authorities offered families that had not received new housing tiny plots on which to set up temporary alternative residences. After rejecting this offer, the protesting families tore down a fence and set themselves up in the shell of Building 9.
The early morning “break-up” operation on February 14 to remove the families was carried out by approximately 150 “mixed forces” under the tactical control of the United Command Committee of Prampir Meakara district of Phnom Penh municipality, which is chaired by the district governor. They included district “public order” para-police, “anti-demonstration intervention unit” police, district regular police, and district gendarmes. These men were variously armed with truncheons, electro-shock batons, or sidearms.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the public order personnel precipitated altercations with the occupying residents and others by using force against people deemed not to have vacated the Building 9 area quickly enough. The security forces then chased people into alleyways behind the Building 9 construction site. As word of injuries spread, confrontations with other residents broke out, with some rock throwing by both security forces and local youths. Confrontations continued while the security forces occupied the area to guard the construction of a new fence around the Building 9 worksite.
The authorities’ use of unnecessary or excessive force contravenes the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Under the Basic Principles, law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force.” When the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must “[e]xercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved.” The authorities also failed to secure medical assistance for the injured, contrary to the UN Basic Principles, which obligates law enforcement officials to “[e]nsure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment.”
The security forces wanted to prevent monitoring of the crackdown by independent observers, Human Rights Watch said. Security force officers on the scene were overheard complaining that human rights monitors, journalists, and other observers present were filming or otherwise documenting abuses. They issued orders to their subordinates to confiscate cameras, although these orders could not be carried out given the large number of people taking pictures. A work-gang leader from China near the construction site wearing a Phanimex Development Company t-shirt was also overheard saying he hoped the security forces would “kill” the occupiers so they would no longer “retard development.”
The Borei Keila incident reflects the broader problem of forced evictions in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in Cambodia. In the absence of an independent and impartial judiciary in Cambodia, access to justice for those facing eviction from housing and land have no effective legal means to contest illegal land grabbing and related evictions. At Borei Keila and in many other places, the government is acting contrary to the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacements by forcibly removing them from their homes without full and fair compensation.
“Hun Sen should recognize that housing protests are the direct result of his government’s practice of kicking people out of their houses and land without a fair and open process and just compensation,” Adams said. “Donors should see it as their responsibility to do everything they can to turn this situation around.”