Violence, Around 30 Arrests at New Phnom Penh 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)
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Around 30 people were arrested in one morning amid violence, villagers and local officials said, as unrest around Phnom Penh’s new international airport development project in Kandal province continued to escalate.

The project, a joint venture between the civil aviation authority and tycoon Pung Kheav Se’s Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation, has met mounting resistance over the last few months as authorities and developers have tried to bulldoze holdouts’ rice fields to clear the way for the development. People who own land in the area say they want compensation in line with market values, not the $8 a square meter on offer.

On Sunday morning around 9 a.m., about 100 people gathered at the disputed site raising banners and yelling through loudspeakers, according to around 10 villagers who spoke to VOD. Most, however, said they were terrified after the day’s events and declined to be named.

The villagers brought a tractor to block the road. Soon, police said that the protesters hurled rocks at them, and retaliated with water cannons and smoke grenades, according to the villagers, some of whom said officers also fired their guns into the air.

Authorities began to arrest the protesters, and the villagers fled through rice fields and streams to get away, they said. Some houses in the area were dismantled, they said.

Bou Leap, 45, said police later dragged her husband, Soy Ra, 50, away from their house. She alleged that officers beat her husband, and confiscated the family’s tractor and motorbike.

“When I tried to help, they prevented me and threw me into the air,” Leap said. “He was alone, there were about 10 of them, and they accused my husband of attacking them. He was sitting on the ground, they used their elbows and knees to hit his back and all over, and his face was bleeding and they dragged him away.”

Boeng Khyang commune chief Nay Chandy said police and military police had arrested around 30 people throughout the day. The protesters had attacked the officers during the protest, he said. 

“They used slingshots to shoot metal and rocks and hit many authorities. Some were bleeding and swollen in their head, so the authorities arrested them. If they had just used loudspeakers, it would have been OK,” he said.

“I went there and I saw two or three buckets of rocks as big as elbows, so the authorities arrested them.”

He said the dispute was about compensation, and although some families had taken money or resettlement land, others had yet to accept any offer.

Commune police chief Pring Ratha said provincial police and military police were in charge of the operations inside the disputed area.

“I know that they arrested perpetrators for throwing water and gasoline to burn,” Ratha said. “They enforced [the law] against red-handed individuals — the ones who used violence against them.”

Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn and deputy governor Nov Peng Chandara declined to comment. Kandal provincial police chief Chhoeun Sochet could not be reached. Kandal Stung district governor Kouch Savoeun said he was in quarantine and had no information.

By Sunday afternoon, the area was quiet, though officers in plain clothes could be seen riding motorbikes up and down the roads.

Leap said she was in shock. She had heard from other villagers that her son had also been beaten that day.

“I have no tears to cry now, and feel very sick, and I’m very scared because we’ve done nothing but they arrested us like we robbed them,” she said. “I have never seen anything like that, and they took my rice farm and now they took my husband and beat my husband.”

The dispute has escalated in the last 10 days after officials first dug up a road to ease flooding at the development site and protestors then attempting to block National Road 2 only to be thwarted by more than 100 security personnel.

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