Phol Srey Phors, 10, and her eight-month-old brother Dina wait to find out if their mother, Phoung Sopheap, will be released at a police station in Phnom Penh. Sopheap and seven other residents were detained by police Thursday, 15 Nov. 2012, for putting the message ‘SOS’ and photos of US President Barack Obama on their rooftops. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
Armed forces yesterday arrested eight villagers who spray-painted “SOS” on their house roofs and displayed giant photos of US President Barack Obama in the hope of drawing his attention to their impending eviction when he arrives in Phnom Penh on Monday.
Leng Vy, 42, whose Thmarkol village house is one of many lining a security fence near Phnom Penh International Airport, said her husband, Un Sokny, was detained yesterday morning.
“More than 20 officers including the police, military police and soldiers gathered outside our home and asked who had sprayed this word,” she said.
“My husband confessed it was him, and they arrested him and took him to the Por Sen Chey district police station.”
It was there the group of six women and two men, which also included Kin Leang, Chray Nim, Khea Sary, Uch Srey Mach, Sem Phal Sokunthy, Yun Sovanna, and Phung Sophea, from Chorm Chau commune, were held for hours before being released without charge last night.
The spectre of eviction has haunted residents of more than 160 households since they were issued with notices in July telling them they would have to make way for an extension of the airport’s security fence. Many villagers, who say they have the required land documents allowing them to stay where they are, feared they would be evicted before the ASEAN Summit, which began yesterday.
On Wednesday, as the summit approached, villagers tried to take their appeal for help to the sky, but were told by district authorities to remove the message and imagery or face arrest, villager Soun Dirath said yesterday.
“When they returned and arrested eight people, I was very frightened and rushed to remove the picture of the US president and scrubbed ‘SOS’ from my roof,” he said.
Villager Sok Seyha, 31, who moved from Boeung Kak lake to escape land eviction problems, said he saw police arresting three of the villagers yesterday morning.
“We saw the police come and get two or three of them. They dragged them – this is no good for the people of Cambodia. There should be talking, not fighting.”
Soldiers in full military attire – and armed with assault rifles – remained stationed at regular intervals along the road leading into the village yesterday afternoon.
At about midday, Phal Srey Phors, the 10-year-old daughter of Sopheap, said her parents, who had accepted compensation to leave Borei Keila, had been told before receiving the eviction notice that their new home was safe.
“I don’t know why the police arrested my mother here,” she said, holding her baby brother, who was later let inside the police station to be fed.
District police chief Bon Samath told the Post yesterday that the eight villagers had been arrested for disrupting public order during an ASEAN Summit. “They have been incited by foreigners,” he said, without revealing who he was referring to. “Because of their lack of knowledge about these things, we do not want to charge or punish them.”
Samath said the villagers had been asked to thumbprint a document promising not to protest again.
Ny Chakrya, head of the monitoring group at rights group Adhoc, said it was clear the villagers had done nothing wrong. “It’s freedom of expression. It’s not illegal to write something or show something,” he said.
Choam Chao commune police chief Mam Hor and commune chief Soth Sath said district authorities had handled the case, while district governor Kith Sopha was not available for comment.
The arrests came as the international community began turning its focus to Cambodia, which is hosting the final ASEAN Summit of its chairmanship.
In the lead-up to the event, which also brings Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to the capital, rights groups have amplified their calls for Cambodia to address what they consider a deteriorating human rights situation.
Adhoc yesterday condemned the arrests, saying before the group’s release that the government’s intolerance of dissent showed democracy was shrinking in the country.
“[Adhoc] has repeatedly called for fair compensation for the residents. This compensation has not been forthcoming,” a statement said. “The 2012 ASEAN Summit presents Cambodia with a unique opportunity to show its commitment to human rights. The arrest of the eight community activists gives the opposite message.”
A coalition of six rights groups, including Community Legal Education Center and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, released a statement saying the arrests sent a “chilling” message to civil society groups ahead of ASEAN.
Allegations of sabotage and intimidation of organisers at independently run community and NGO forums across the capital have also surfaced in the past three days.