PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Villagers who live next to the Cambodian capital’s airport had a message for President Barack Obama, but he won’t be seeing it when he lands next week.
Authorities on Thursday arrested eight villagers for plastering the U.S. president’s picture on their rooftops beside spray-painted messages of “SOS.”
Their community of about 400 families lives in rickety homes with corrugated tin roofs adjacent to the Phnom Penh airport’s only runway. Villagers say they were ordered in July to vacate their land so the airport could enlarge its runway and build a security buffer zone.
“We are being forcibly evicted from our land without proper compensation,” said 23-year-old villager Sim Sokunthea. “We didn’t mean any harm. We just wanted Obama to help us.”
Dozens of police arrived at the village early Thursday morning. They ordered villagers to remove the rooftop artwork, which was deemed illegal, and they arrested those responsible, said Long Kimheang, spokesman for Housing Rights Task Force, an advocacy group that works with villagers facing eviction.
Land disputes have become a critical social and political issue in Cambodia, which Prime Minister Hun Sen has led for nearly 30 years. Powerful companies with influential connections take over land and evict villagers, who receive little or no compensation. The problem has sparked unrest nationwide, with deadly force sometimes employed by security forces to evict villagers.
Obama’s visit to Cambodia on Monday and Tuesday will be the first by a sitting U.S. president. He is to attend an East Asia summit in the Cambodian capital.
More than 10,000 security forces have been assigned to keep order during the summit as part of Hun Sen’s determined effort to show Cambodia’s best face to the outside world.
National police spokesman Kirt Chantharith confirmed that eight people — six women and two men — were arrested at the village. He declined to say what charges they face.
Human rights groups have urged Obama to demand that Hun Sen address human rights abuses and implement genuine reforms. Obama will also visit Thailand and Myanmar on his first overseas trip since winning re-election.