Four protesters seeking compensation from Phnom Penh’s new international airport development have been put in Covid-19 quarantine without cause, allege their wives, who accuse authorities of trying to silence the protests.
A local official, however, says the men were quarantined because they were in contact with a Covid-positive person when they submitted a petition at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet office in the capital.
The dispute in Kandal province has been tense for months since bulldozers attempted to clear farmers’ land. Protesters have camped out on the disputed area to stand guard, and have held a cursing ceremony against the developers, Cambodia Airport Investment, a joint venture between the Civil Aviation Secretariat and the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation, the prominent firm behind Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island and several other projects. Last month, news publisher Los Seng said he was being pressured by authorities to stop reporting on the airport dispute.
Bat Sok Khoeun, 49, a resident of Kandal Stung district’s Boeng Khyang commune, said district police, commune police and commune officials arrived on Monday and gave the four protesters — including her husband — no choice but to enter Covid-19 quarantine for 14 days.
They had just returned from submitting a petition to Hun Sen’s cabinet, Sok Khoeun said.
She said the explanation for quarantine was unclear, and there was no documentation. “First, the doctor came and said that those who submitted the petition were positive. After talking longer and longer, the doctor said he came to take them to quarantine out of fear that they are positive.”
Hum Sokhem, 45, whose husband was also taken into quarantine, said she couldn’t help but feel suspicious. She demanded that authorities release the protesters and stop using Covid-19 as a way to prevent protests.
“They didn’t test anything. They came to accuse us of having Covid,” Sokhem said. “I’m just worried that they were being mistreated in connection with the land dispute with the company.”
Kandal Stung district governor Ouch Savoeun said the quarantine was purely for health precautions.
The four people were in contact with someone positive with Covid-19 when they went to file a petition at the Prime Minister’s cabinet office, Savoeun said.
“We did not arrest people. We followed administrative rules related to health work. We did not tie them up. We went to invite them to conduct quarantine because they had contacted a Covid-19 positive person,” Savoeun said. “We tested and took their sample. I’ve told them that in relation to gatherings, do not gather at all. Protests and settlements, it has been resolved.”
The protesters have been demanding compensation in line with market values — as much as $120 per square meter — rather than the offered $8, determined before the airport project was announced.
Van Sophat, a coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said some authorities appeared to be using Covid-19 as an excuse to ban land protests.
“The company and the authorities have used the pretext or taken the opportunity of Covid-19 to disperse, to deprive the people of the right to assemble and the right of expression in protecting their land. It only makes them more vulnerable. It is a very serious human rights violation,” Sophat said.
The new international airport, spanning 2,600 hectares in Kandal and Takeo provinces including an associated satellite city development, is slated to open in 2023.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)