PHOTOS & VIDEO: Cambodian authorities turn water cannon on landless protesters

Human rights and other social activists in Cambodia are shocked at the unprovoked use of three water cannon against a peaceful protest in the capital Phnom Penh by a group (mainly women) from a community evicted from their homes around Boeung Kak Lake. Three protesters were injured.

Some 4,000 families lost their homes in 2007 when the government ignored their titles and land claims and lease the land to Shukaku Incorporated, a company owned by a Lao Meng Khin, a senior politician in the ruling Cambodia People's Party. Lao was named as one of the "Cambodia' top ten tycoons" in one of the Wikileak cables.

These evictions are part of a much bigger problem, estimated by some human rights groups to effect about 400,000 Cambodians many of who are now forced to live in shanty towns or emigrate to the countryside.

While years of determined protests have forced the authorities to resettle some of the evicted families from Boeung Kak Lake, some 364 families are still seeking a settlement.

Over the last year, activists have been beaten up at peaceful protests and one of their leaders, Yorm Bopha, is in jail on trumped up charges.

An eyewitness at the latest protest, held outside the Phnom Penh municipal offices, told Green Left Weekly:

"It was a peaceful protest. As you can see in the video footage [below], the protesters were peaceful. All they did was just sit down on the ground.

"The authorities did give the protesters a warning [before using the water cannon] but did not give them enough time to think about what to do."

Social activist and former garment worker Sophea Chrek, who was present at part of the protest, told GLW: "The authorities have been getting more violent with peaceful protesters. This is the first time they used the high-pressure water hose against a community protest although the authorities did use it to attack striking garment workers in the past."

Nora Lindstrom, Programme Development Manager of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), a Cambodian NGO providing pro-poor technical assistance for housing and infrastructure and raising awareness about urban issues, told GLW:

"This appears to be a new tactic used by the authorities, but is in line with the increased use of excessive force by the authorities against non-violent protesters we have documented over the past year or so. We (STT together with the community) have put forward an eminently viable plan for the resolution of the Boeung Kak situation through the inclusion of the households excluded from the [earlier] 12.44ha concession. What is needed is for the authorities to take concrete action on that plan, not hose down their people."

The plight of the Boeung Kak Lake evictees is summed up in an open letter they sent to the World Bank a few weeks ago, which said in part:

"We believe the World Bank has a responsibility to address our situation. In our 2009 complaint to the Bank’s Inspection Panel for the Bank’s role in the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) in Cambodia, we maintained that the Bank had breached its operational policies by failing to adequately supervise the Project, as a result of which we faced forced eviction. The Inspection Panel found in favour of our claim, and Bank Management subsequently committed to '[w]orking with the Government and Development Partners towards ensuring that the communities who filed the Request will be supported in a way consistent with the Resettlement Policy Framework.'

"We are still waiting for that support. When the World Bank froze all new lending to Cambodia after the Cambodian Government refused to cooperate to improve our situation, the Government responded by awarding 12.44ha of land to the people of Boeung Kak. This was an important step towards resolving the Boeung Kak dispute, but it was solution for only those 650 or so households remaining in the area – that’s only 15% of the 4,200 families affected.

"We believe the World Bank has a responsibility towards all of Boeung Kak’s residents, both current and former. At the time we left the area we had no other choice: our houses were covered in water and we were regularly harassed and intimidated. We did not leave voluntarily."

The peaceful protest by Boeung Kak Lake evictees. Photo courtesy of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)

Feared Phnom Penh police commissioner ordered the water cannon to be fired on the protesters the protesters. Photo courtesy of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)

Three fire trucks were used to turn high pressure water hoses on the protesters. Photo courtesy of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)

Three fire trucks were used to turn high pressure water hoses on the protesters. Photo courtesy of Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO)/LICADHO Canada

Even people who tried to help the protesters were hosed by the authorities. Photo courtesy of Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO)/LICADHO Canada

Video footage posted on YouTube by LICADHO Canada