About 50 villagers attempted to block National Road 2 in Kandal province on Tuesday morning in protest of the development of Phnom Penh’s new international airport but were confronted by about 100 security officers.
The standoff, in which the two sides exchanged words but remained nonviolent, was the latest in an escalating dispute related to compensation for farmland on the airport development land.
Khim Mony, one of the protesters, said authorities arrived early for the planned protest; by around 4 a.m., trucks were passing by her house as police officers set up barricades around the area.
“There were so many police,” Mony said. “Police cars kept coming.”
A hut that villagers had been using as a base for protests was dismantled around that time. Villagers then began to gather, and around 6 a.m. moved toward the national road, she said.
But the villagers were outnumbered, she said.
“We decided to pull back, because we think that our forces were not yet full,” Mony said. “Like in war, we need to pull back one step to think together and find another solution. We will resist until we are successful.”
The villagers nevertheless made it to the national road, where they entered a standoff with officers by late morning.
They left around midday, and near police barricades on dirt roads, a military police officer could be heard telling the villagers that authorities had orders to keep the confrontation nonviolent, and accused the protesters of having land brokers behind them.
The residents oppose the state’s offer of $8 per square meter as compensation, saying market prices have become much higher.
“Whether they care about the people — no. They only care about the airport,” Mony said. “We rely on the authorities, but the authorities come to hurt people. … We are sick and tired of it.”
Mony said two younger protesters had their phones confiscated for filming the confrontation, but the phones were later returned.
Ouk Khon, 50, who also has land in the disputed area, said he hoped Prime Minister Hun Sen could hear the people crying from his home in Kandal’s Takhmao city.
“I’ve suffered a lot,” Khon said, alleging the company had bulldozed his farmland three times. “The company has so much money that it wouldn’t fit on trucks … and they give us $8.”
Officers had set up roadblocks so they could not go to their farmland in the disputed area, he said.
“The airport should not be built on the tears of the people, and our tears have fallen for three years,” he said. “They’ve bulldozed our rice fields like our mother died and we cannot attend the funeral.”
In addition to stopping the protesters’ attempt to block National Road 2, the Kandal provincial administration has been working to dig channels through the villagers’ dirt roads to ease flooding on the airport development site.
In a statement, the administration said that due to recent heavy rain, the airport company would be undertaking earthworks to clear the flooding and implement the priority project of constructing the first runway.
The administration asked that residents use detours in the meantime.
Mai Dara, 40, whose house is inside the airport area, said multiple roads had been cut off by the digging.
“I don’t know what happens to my house, and don’t know what to do,” Dara said. “We don’t know what the government thinks of its people’s protest. … We do not know why they need to bring such force, and whether this is a threat or intimidation I don’t know. But this is too much force.”
Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn could not be reached for comment.