Monthly Archives: October 2013

Borei Keila Protest March

The first in depth photo project I did in Cambodia was focused on the forced eviction of the Borei Keila community. A year later, the situation barely seems to have changed. The residents of Borei Keila are still waiting on adequate compensation from either the government or the land development corporation, and it doesn’t seem like either entity has made the issue a top priority.

In an attempt to force a resolution to the situation, the residents turned to one of the only weapons at their disposal: public protest.

Marches and rallies have becoming increasingly popular in Phnom Penh, and the ubiquity of smartphone-toting citizen journalists suggests that Cambodians are taking cues from the Arab Spring uprisings.

On October 30th, the residents of Borei Keila met at 8.30 in the morning to began their march. But before they had set out from their community, the police had established the first of many road blocks the day would see.

Riot police form a line in an attempt to prevent the protestors from leaving Borei Keila.

Riot police form a line in an attempt to prevent the protestors from leaving Borei KeilaThough the police lines looked initially formidable, making an ostentatious display of banging batons against their riot shields, their resolve was less than firm. Despite urgent commands from the officer in charge, the officers gave way to the group – mainly comprised of middle aged and elderly women – within a few minutes.

With this initial obstacle overcome, the protestors marched out of Borei Keila and towards the  Peace Palace – the ironically named building which houses the offices of the top government officials.

It only stands to reason that a violent reaction from the officers would bring much needed international attention to the Borei Keila cause , and so for nearly an hour they pushed, jostled, and attempted to generally provoke the police as they shouted their message.

The riot line  breaks as the protestors force their way through. Police resistance seems half hearted and they give ground almost immediately.

The riot line breaks as the protestors force their way through. Police resistance seems half hearted and they give ground almost immediately.

The Borei Keila protestors march towards the Peace Palace, the location of President Hun Sen's office.

The Borei Keila protestors march towards the Peace Palace, the location of President Hun Sen’s office.

A protestor cries out in front of the riot police protecting the Peace Palace.

A protestor cries out in front of the riot police protecting the Peace Palace.

A protestor expresses anger with a police officer after being pushed.

A protestor expresses anger with a police officer after being pushed.

Government workers look out from the Peace Palace compound, watching the protestors.

Government workers look out from the Peace Palace compound, watching the protestors.

Though the regular police forces acted with relative restraint, when the protestors left the Peace Palace and blocked traffic on Monivong Boulevard near City Hall, more aggressive blue-clad security officers moved into the fray and seized an unidentified man from the crowd. Neither Cambodian nor foreign journalists were able to learn why this man was targeted; rumours circulated that they had actually been after a journalist and had taken the wrong person.

Rumours aside, the man wan dragged inside the walled City Hall compound and allegedly beaten. In response, the protestors rushed the gates and threw food and debris over the fence, but the fate of the man was unclear.

A protestor whips a sarong at riot police. After protestors block the road in front of City Hall, police move in to clear the street and the confrontation resumes.

A protestor whips a sarong at riot police. After protestors block the road in front of City Hall, police move in to clear the street and the confrontation resumes.

A protestor cries after being knocked to the ground by police.

A protestor cries after being knocked to the ground by police.

Security forces seize an unidentified man from the crowd of protestors and drag him inside the City Hall compound, where he is allegedly beaten.

Security forces seize an unidentified man from the crowd of protestors and drag him inside the City Hall compound, where he was allegedly beaten.

In the face of this violence, the marchers returned to Borei Keila to plan their next move, postponing plans to occupy a building being built by the same land developer responsible for their evictions years before.

The issue of land grabbing and forced evictions in Cambodia is ongoing, and this protest was just one event in what will surely be an ongoing campaign.

 

Protestors throw rice and debris over the gates of City Hall after a man was dragged from the ground and allegedly beaten inside the compound. The food had been part of a Buddhist offering.

Protestors throw rice and debris over the gates of City Hall after a man was dragged from the ground and allegedly beaten inside the compound. The food had been part of a Buddhist offering.

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Protest Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Cambodia: One Year Later

It was while I was living in a tent in northern Alberta, working on a four month project about Canadian tree planters, that I made the decision to move to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’d visited the Kingdom of Cambodia several times in the past, most recently last October when I stayed for a month to document the aftermath and consequences of the forced evictions in the community of Borei Keila. To avoid spouting off cliches about the friendly people or vibrancy of life, I’ll just say this: it is an impossible place to forget. When it came time to move on from Canada’s northern forests, Phnom Penh was the first city that came to mind. Often exciting, sometimes sad, and nearly always interesting, Cambodia was a natural choice.

But the city that I left in 2012 is not the same one that I find myself in now. In a relatively short period of time, Cambodia has undergone some dramatic political changes, ones I couldn’t have imagined a year earlier. The Kingdom I left was a virtual dictatorship, with President Hun Sen and his questionable human rights record having held onto power for 27 years. The leader of the official opposition party, Sam Rainsy, had been living in exile in France since 2005, and it seemed as though Cambodians were unlikely to have much say in how their nation was governed. Several protests I attended, aimed at calling international attention to the issues of land grabbing and forced evictions, were met with harsh police crackdowns – road blocks and riot shields were the norm, not the exception.

The city I find myself in now, however, is charged with political energy. Sam Rainsy has returned from exile and is at the head of mass rallies with thousands of supporters marching through the streets. Citizens and monks alike wear the orange band of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, something that seemed unimaginable a year earlier.

It should be noted that Rainsy and CNRP is by no means a magic-bullet solution to Cambodia’s numerous social problems, and is not necessarily a better prospective leader. And Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has no intention of relinquishing power meekly – as demonstrated by the deadly shooting of a protestor by government forces last month. The ruling party is still very much in control of the nation. The recent changes in Cambodia’s political climate are by no means decisive, and there will certainly be countless bumps along the road to democratization. But the fact that there are changes of any sort after nearly three decades of stagnation is a feat in and of itself.

Neither Cambodians nor foreign journalists have a clear idea of what the future will hold for the country, but it is, without a doubt, an interesting time to live in the Kingdom.

Sam Rainsy leads a CNRP march through central Phnom Penh.

Sam Rainsy leads a CNRP march through central Phnom Penh.

Monks take part in a CNRP political rally at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

Monks take part in a CNRP political rally at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

Thousands of CNRP supporters gather in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh, unopposed by police.

Thousands of CNRP supporters gather in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh, unopposed by police.

Monks wear the orange armband of the CNRP.

Monks wear the orange armband of the CNRP.

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia Tagged , , , , , , |