Kandal Residents Briefly Detained for Taking Photos of New Airport Development

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Kandal villagers are blocked by security personnel as they protest the construction of a new airport for Phnom Penh on September 7, 2021. (Mech Dara/VOD)

A mother and son contesting the development of Phnom Penh’s new international airport in Kandal province were detained on Wednesday for taking photos of their rice field being cleared by the developer, but were released after agreeing to stop protesting.

Heang Heak, 42, and her son Tuon Dina, 18, were detained on Wednesday morning while taking the photos of company workers clearing their land for the new airport project, which remains in dispute with landowners over compensation.

Tuon Vannak, 48, their husband and father, told VOD on Wednesday evening that the two were released and had arrived home around 3 p.m. after being taken to the provincial police headquarters.

“I asked whether anyone had threatened them or not, but she said no. She was just asked to make a contract and stop protesting.”

Vannak said he owned 0.4 hectares of land on the airport site, and the actions against his family members were an injustice.

The company was clearing his fields that were owned legally, he said.

“I feel pity for my wife and son because they did not commit any wrongdoing,” Vannak said. “They took a phone from my son and deleted all photos, and they were told to delete them all [including] the photos that had been shared, otherwise they would be in trouble.”

The detentions came a day after villagers were met with a heavy security presence on Tuesday as they attempted to block National Road 2 to protest the airport project.

Kandal Stung district police chief Leng Sokrun told VOD on Wednesday evening that the two had come to the site where workers were working and took photos.

He said they were not arrested, but had only been asked not to take photos and were educated to ask permission.

“They asked to go to look for firewood, but they went to take photos of others’ activities,” Sokrun said. “They took photos of all the activities around where people were working.”

He said they were asked to delete the photos and if they wanted to take photos, they needed to get permission.

Asked why they were not allowed to take photos, Sokrun said he didn’t know but had just heard that people were not allowed to take photos.

“After questioning them, we let them go immediately,” the police chief said. Now the situation was calm and people had all gone back home and there was no more protest, he said.

Khim Maly, 42, a villager in Boeng Khyang commune, said the mother and son were arrested around 9 a.m.

The two had gone to see their rice field, after learning it was being cleared by the company, and they had broadcast it live online, Maly said.

None of the landowners had been able to cultivate the fields in the area for almost three years, she added, sounding on the verge of tears. 

Maly, who owns about 0.3 hectares on the disputed land, said authorities continued to deploy forces on Wednesday and blocked the road to prevent people from entering and stopping the company’s machinery. She said she and others feel tired and very disappointed and sad.

“We all have nothing but to sleep and cry,” Maly said. “The authorities took the side of the rich and powerful person. They have never opened their eyes to look at the people.”

She said she did not know who or what to rely on, noting that even reporters had been threatened and no one wanted to come.

“Even if they successfully take my land to build the airport, I will not back down. I will protest till the end of my life … if they don’t settle based on the market price,” she said.

The state has offered $8 a square meter in compensation for the land, but the disputants say it is worth many times more than that.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho, said the woman and her son were arrested and sent to provincial police but had been released over taking photos of the clearing activities.

The arrests were a kind of threat against people who had only gone to see their own land, which was still in dispute, and authorities should not persecute people who still have rights to the land, Sam Ath said.

“The important thing is finding a solution to end [the dispute], and not solving it through threats and intimidation.”

He added that the incident would cause criticism against the government and potentially more trouble.

Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn and provincial police chief Chhoeun Sochet could not be reached for comment. Deputy provincial governor and spokesperson Nov Peng Chandara told VOD that he did not have any information about the case.

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