Why Victims of a Cambodian Land Grab are Protesting at the US Embassy

Violent clashes and protests over a land-grabbing disputed have taken place in the heart of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh this week, after a development company began to bulldoze the slum homes of 300 poor families.

The destruction has prompted a wave of evictee protests at Western embassies, as victims hope to draw world attention to their plight—and perhaps inspire measures like the World Bank’s continuing freeze on loans to Cambodia,  after similar government-backed evictions took place at Boueng Kak Lake in 2010 and 2011.

As bulldozers moved into the downtown slum Tuesday, enraged residents threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who fired back with rubber bullets: 30 protesters and 34 police were injured in the fray, while 8 protesters were taken into police custody, where they remain as of Friday.

According to evictees, some houses were obliterated while occupants were still sleeping inside. Others lost all their possessions, escaping only with their lives. Villagers, operating under the assumption that they’d find some sort of impasse with the Phan Imex development company, were given no advance notice that bulldozers were coming.

In 2011, the evictions of residents of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake drew media as thousands of angered evictees fought the Shukakau corporation tooth-and-nail for adequate compensation for their homes. The World Bank eventually intervened and opted to freeze all loans to the Cambodian government over the incident.

That may have inspired protesters from the Beorei Keila neighborhood, who took their grievances to the US embassy.

On Wednesday, protesters attempting to stage a temporary occupation of the grass median facing the US Embassy were cleared out by jumpy and well-armed-for-Cambodia riot police: 8 protesters who returned to Borei Keila were arrested around 10 PM that night, after the press and most NGO representatives had gone home. One protester was charged with “intentional violence and obstructing public officials.”

The evictees returned to the US Embassy yesteday, but did not get much in the way of Western acknowledgement, despite high profile assistance from MP and human rights lawyer Mu Sochua and Kek Galeru, chairwoman of human rights NGO Licadho.

A small group were allowed to submit a petition to the US Embassy after four hours of sweaty sitting-in Thursday afternoon, but no representatives came to speak with them. The evictees submitted the same petition to the British and French Embassies Thursday, and plan to submit it to the German, EU, and Swedish embassies Friday.

Protesters displayed sheafs of documents to anyone who would look proving their title to the homes that were destroyed, documents Phan Imex out-right ignored, claiming the villagers had no legal right to their destroyed property.

The US Embassy tweeted a tepid response to the media attention Wednesday: “US remains concerned abt potential for unresolved land disputes to lead to instability in Cambodia. (1 of 4) #BoreiKeila” and…”The United States urges protesters to refrain from violence & calls on security forces to exercise maximum restraint. (4 of 4) #BoreiKeila.”

The World Bank’s continuing freeze of loans to Cambodia proves international pressure can go a long way towards helping meet the simple needs of the evictees. Protesters have thrown down a symbolic gauntlet in front of Western embassy staffers: major powers with a presence in Phnom Penh now must choose to press the Cambodian government over this issue, or ignore a blatant human rights abuse.

“Only the poor help the poor,” one of Thursday’s protesting evictees said. “The rich and powerful would never dare to come here.”

Will Western powers prove this homeless Cambodian woman right?