Cambodian evictions trigger villagers' brawl with police

Police in southern Cambodia say eight protesters were arrested and six policemen hurt when villagers angry about being evicted tried to block a main road

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Eight protesters were arrested and six policemen hurt Friday in southern Cambodia when villagers angry about being evicted tried to block a main road, police said.

Gen. Chuon Narin, the police chief of the coastal city of Sihanoukville, said fighting broke out when police tried to remove makeshift barriers of stone, broken concrete and tree limbs that about 100 villagers set across the road to the capital, Phnom Penh. He said villagers threw stones at police and other security personnel trying to remove the barriers to let traffic through, and also damaged three police cars.

Police finally managed to clear the road, he said.

Land disputes are a major issue in Cambodia, as developers lay claim to valuable rural and urban tracts whose legal ownership is often hazy. It is not rare for disputes to turn violent.

The area around Sihanoukville has become a focus of especially high real estate speculation and rising prices because it has attracted intense investment from China, though most protests there have been nonviolent.

Blocking the national road to make demands about their dispute is illegal because the road is for traffic and for the public, and my forces will not allow them to do so, Gen. Chuon Narin said by telephone from Sihanoukville.

Chuon Narin said the trouble began Thursday when police sought to evict 600 villagers from nearby land he said they occupied illegally.

Villagers said most of them had been living there for two years and received no eviction notice before bulldozers arrived to demolish their homes.

One of Fridays protesters, 30-year-old Kong Mom, said by phone that villagers became angry with police when they chased people out of their houses to allow the bulldozers and other demolition equipment to carry out their work, and barred the villagers from re-entering their homes to collect their belongings.

She said the villagers will ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to give them some land to resettle on.

We have nowhere to go, no house to stay in, so we are asking the government for a small piece of land to build homes for our children and families, she said. Prime Minister Hun Sen, I sincerely beg you, please give us some land for us to build houses. We are too poor to have money to buy land for housing.