Now entering its third month, the civil society-backed Black Monday campaign is showing signs of waning, with some land rights communities halting their weekly protests demanding the release of jailed human rights activists due to lack of funds.
Chray Nim – a representative of the SOS land dispute community which, in conjunction with a group of former Boeung Kak lake residents, had taken up the cause of the jailed activists – said the groups had been forced to suspend their participation, adding that she had been using her own money to fund their activities.
“I lost some regular customers such as military and police personnel, and civil servants,” Nim said. “They don’t come to my [laundry] shop like before, because I appeared in the Black Monday campaign.”
However, other activists and civil society members – including a separate set of Boeung Kak activists – sought yesterday to inject new relevance into the event by adding justice for slain political commentator Kem Ley to their existing demands.
“We will pay respect to his soul every Monday evening. This is our new message – justice for Kem Ley is justice for everyone,” Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny said.
Moeun Tola, head of workers’ rights NGO Central, said the campaign was still seeing support, but also said that there needed to be an escalation following Ley’s death.
An anti-eviction protester who police claim orchestrated several large-scale reoccupation attempts on a planned rubber plantation in Mondolkiri province was arrested on Monday, police and a rights monitor said.
Rith Vanny, 43, was arrested after she and about 200 former residents of Koh Nhek district’s Rayar commune erected 18 crude shelters on the plantation on Sunday and Monday, according to Sou Sovan, provincial deputy police chief.
About 500 families living on the land were evicted in 2012, three years after the Pacific Pearl Joint Stock Company was granted a 9,614-hectare economic land concession to develop a rubber plantation, which has yet to begin operations.
“We arrested the woman for questioning because she brought people from everywhere to grab the company’s land,” he said. “We arrested the leader for education and to warn other people not to grab company land.”
Former residents claim that some families moved to the area as early as 2008, although they admit that they do not have land titles. Mr. Sovan said they all arrived after the ELC had been granted.
The police official added that Ms. Vanny similarly attempted to reoccupy the land four times in the four years since the evictions and would be sent to the provincial court today after being held overnight at the provincial police headquarters.
Representatives of Pacific Pearl could not be reached for comment.
Eang Mengly, provincial monitor for rights group Adhoc, said he witnessed Ms. Vanny’s arrest.
“I saw more than 30 police and military police officers in five pickup trucks arrive, and they blocked the path of a truck transporting people attempting to return to their homes on National Road 78A,” he said.
“The authorities grabbed the woman, then pushed her into a truck and drove away,” he added.
Mr. Mengly said the families had been protesting since their eviction, submitting petitions to the National Assembly, the Interior Ministry and the Land Management Ministry—to no avail.
Em Moeun, 56, said that he had staked out a 5-hectare plot in 2009—the same year the company was granted the ELC—but said other families had arrived the year before.
“The authorities forced the people to leave the land, but we refused. That’s why they ordered police to arrest our representative and put her in jail in an attempt to break the spirit of our people,” he said.
Mr. Moeun said around 40 people had gathered on Tuesday afternoon at the provincial hall to protest Ms. Vanny’s detention.
“We have gathered outside the provincial hall to ask the provincial governor to release our representative because she did not commit a crime like she was accused of,” he said.
Anti-government protests marking the ninth “Black Monday” culminated in violent clashes between activists and security guards in Phnom Penh on Monday.
Some 50 activists, most from the capital’s eviction-hit communities, gathered in the city’s Boeng Kak neighborhood at about 8:30 a.m. to demand the release of four human rights workers and an election official who were jailed in May for allegedly bribing the mistress of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to deny the affair.
About 30 minutes later, dozens of Daun Penh district security guards—who gained notoriety for their violent repression of opposition protests in the wake of the 2013 election—showed up and destroyed a prop cage meant to symbolize the plight of the incarcerated five, said activist Song Sreyleap.
The situation escalated when the guards attempted to confiscate a drum used by the black-clad protesters.
“They destroyed our materials and pushed us to the ground,” Ms. Sreyleap said.
“They beat us, kicked us when we were on the ground, and punched a male protester twice in the back,” she said, adding that at least five activists sustained minor injuries, ranging from cut faces to sprained wrists.
An hour later in Dangkao district, about a dozen other protesters—who traded their usual black shirts for white in an attempt to convince authorities that they were not inciting a “color revolution,” as previously accused—attempted to travel to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion but were also met with force.
When they boarded a convoy of tuk-tuks bound for the premier’s residence, a group of security guards ordered them out of the vehicles. Fifteen minutes later, police arrived on motorbikes and ripped apart their banners and balloons, shoving away activists who intervened.
When the tussle subsided, former Boeng Kak resident Sea Nareth chastised the security personnel.
“You are like hellish animals…you will get everything you have done to us!” she shouted through tears.
Contacted by telephone, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak threatened the “Black Monday” participants with legal action and claimed they were being funded by third parties, declining to elaborate.
“If they still refuse to follow orders [to stop protesting] one more time, we will take other action,” General Sopheak said. “We may send them to court.”
“To print T-shirts, they need money first. The ones who join protests are not the people who fund them. I know who gave them their money,” he said, going on to accuse the protesters of convincing their own children to cry for the cameras.
“They are professional demonstrators,” he said “They make the children cry like it’s the truth.”
Now in its eighth week, the civil society-backed “Black Monday” campaign yesterday saw no arrests as land rights activists kept protests within their respective communities and rights groups limited themselves to posting support for jailed human rights activists on social media.
Boeung Kak land activists released 200 black balloons with black hearts attached to them as they demanded the release of four Adhoc staffers and one election official jailed in relation to the Kem Sokha sex scandal.
“We believe that our voice can have an influence and be heard by the world, which will then put pressure on the government and call for their release,” said prominent Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny.
Twenty representatives of the so-called SOS community near the airport also dressed in black and protested, though did not stray from the area near their homes.
Land activists have been at the forefront of the campaign and been the subject of multiple arrests over the past two months, only to be let go after pledging to not wear black and to ask permission before conducting any future protests.
City Hall administrative director Mean Chanyada expressed frustration at the continued defiance of government orders to stop Black Monday-related activities.
“They are stubborn,” he said. “We have educated them many times and they promise the authorities that they will not do again, but they still do it, and the ones who do it are the same faces.”
Ever since Prime Minister Hun Sen’s announcement calling for the City Hall to evaluate the railway from Boeung Kak to National Road 6, and develop a new road connection, the hundreds of residents along the railroad seem to be keeping mum and resigning to their fate.
Heang Sokun, community manager for Equitable Cambodia, who works with many poor communities in Phnom Penh, said that the prime minister, speaking at the launch of the new City Hall administrative building on April 5, had asked the City Hall to evaluate the possibility of a railway renovation from Boeung Kak to National Road 6 by building another traffic connection as a means to decrease traffic congestion along National Road 5, from Chroy Chongvar bridge to Kilometer 6 – the midpoint from the railway to National Road 5 in the capital’s north.
In a post written on June 4 on Pa Socheatvong’s official Facebook page, the Phnom Penh governor said, “The construction of the roads on both sides of the railway from National Road 5 to R6 street (Boeung Kak) will be 5.62 kilometres long and 7 metres from the railway. The research groups have to further study the effects and techniques. The team will be conducting a field trip next week.”
A 40-year old resident, Ra, who owns a house along the railway, expressed his concern because he “has heard about the development on this road” but “we don’t know what they’re going to do. If they evict us, we would not know where to go”.
Without further explanations, Ra started his bike and rode away after a last feeble comment: “We are poor citizens. We don’t have any rights to protest against them. We’ll just have to do what they tell us to.”
Sokun explained, “Our organization has only worked with four of the ten communities along this railway.” He added, “In those four communities, there are 584 families, with a total of 1,748 people, 1,641 of whom are women.”
“The majority of people living in those four communities will be affected by the road expansion because their houses are already very small, almost next to the railway,” he said.
Another resident, a 50-year-old man who refused to give his identity, said his family has lived around the railway since 1979.
“Most of the people living here are poor, so they have to get by. The local authorities don’t say anything, but they don’t hand out our land titles. Only a handful here have their land titles,” he lamented.
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong has called on unnamed politicians to stop using Boeung Kak, Borei Keila and SOS land activists for political demonstrations.
Speaking at the University of Agriculture on Saturday ahead of the sixth “Black Monday” protest, in which the activists have been taking part, Socheatvong said they were protesting just to score political points.
“Boeung Kak [activists] do not protest for the sake of Boeung Kak anymore, but for the political goal that they have been employed for,” he said.
Socheatvong also accused Boeung Kak activist Nget Khun, 76, also known as “Mummy”, of taking payments of $5 or $10 to protest, and after demonstrations using it to “hold a party with a can or two of beer”.
Boeung Kak activist Tep Vanny laughed off Socheatvong’s allegations. “We have been protesting for more than 10 years and we still don’t know who gives us money,” she said. “Socheatvong seems to know, so we plan to find him to lead us to the money.”
Seven activists arrested in Phnom Penh on Monday morning for attempting to demonstrate against the recent arrests of four human rights workers and an election official were released by nightfall, a familiar conclusion to the latest “Black Monday” demonstration.
Protesters dressed in black shirts first gathered outside the city’s Prey Sar prison on May 9 to demand the release of the five prisoners, who have all been charged with bribing the alleged mistress of CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha to deny the affair. The Anti-Corruption Unit has been investigating the purported relationship for evidence of financial wrongdoing, although many see the effort as politically motivated.
On Monday morning, four activists were arrested on the way to the prison in a tuk-tuk and forced into a police truck that took them to the Dangkao district police station. Minutes later, three other activists were arrested outside the prison after affixing a bouquet of lotus flowers to a barbed-wire fence.
“Injustice. This is a great injustice. I have done nothing wrong,” said Im Srey Touch, one of the activists arrested outside the prison, while being forced into the bed of a waiting police truck.
The Law on Peaceful Assembly does not require organizers to seek or receive permission to hold a protest, only to give notice. But City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey said the seven were arrested because they had failed to secure advance permission.
“They had no permission,” he said. “They do not listen to our education about the Black Monday demonstrations for the release of the five accused people in prison,” he added. “This case is in the court’s hands and if they want to demand something they should follow the court procedure.”
Government officials have called the peaceful campaign for the release of the five prisoners “an urban rebellion” and said their choice of black—to symbolize the bleak state of human rights in the country—was an intolerable reminder of the Khmer Rouge.
On Monday, National Police spokesman Saran Komsath accused them of incitement.
“This is not expression but incitement to attract other people to join them in their goal to cause social turmoil,” he said.
True to form, however, the government had released all seven activists by the end of the day. Contacted in the evening, Mr. Measpheakdey said the women were released at 6 p.m. after signing contracts promising to stop their protests.
The spokesman said they were released even though the people they had arrested during prior Black Monday demonstrations—including four of the women taken into custody on Monday—had signed the same contracts.
“We are still educating them. We are patient, but if they still act like this we will take administrative measures,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Following her release, Chray Nim said she and the other women were questioned during their detention.
“They asked us why we wear black. We said we dress in black to mourn for human rights and show that human rights in Cambodia is now in the dark,” she said.
“We asked the police why we cannot wear black on Black Monday. They said we were breaking the law because the Interior Ministry had banned it.”
Ms. Nim said they signed the contracts but did not feel bound by them because the documents restricted only illegal protests.
“Our protests are legal because no law says we cannot wear black,” she said, pledging to keep demonstrating until the five prisoners were released.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the police had no legal grounds to arrest the women.
“What the authorities did seemed to violate the freedoms of the people guaranteed by the Constitution and international law,” she said. “I think that if this [the arrests] continues, it will make the human rights situation worse.”