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Phnom Penh - Police in Cambodia arrested at least eight people on Thursday for painting messages on their homes near the capital's airport asking for help from US President Barack Obama because they face eviction before he visits the country next week.
The villages involved around the perimeter of the airport in Phnom Penh are home to 182 families.
Residents said they were told in July they had to move out because of security concerns when world leaders, including Obama, fly in to attend summit meetings in coming days. They have not been offered compensation for the loss of their homes.
Armed police moved into the villages on Wednesday night and residents were told to remove the messages they had painted beside pictures of Obama or face the consequences, a worker for the Licadho human rights group said.
At least six women and two men had been taken into custody, Licadho and the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) said. Cambodian police declined comment.
“I put up the picture of Obama because I want him to help us get fair compensation from the government,” said resident Chuong Socheata, 33. “And that's because the government has no plans to solve this peacefully.”
Forced evictions have been rife in Cambodia in recent years and are frequently criticised by rights groups, even if the authorities may have legitimate security concerns in this case about buildings so close to the airport.
Only about 20 percent of Cambodians have land titles - a hangover from the Khmer Rouge's abolition of private property during its 1975-1979 reign of terror - leaving many defenceless when the authorities hand their land over to big companies for development.
The World Bank, which had been helping the government rebuild a land registry, froze fresh aid to Cambodia last year because of the eviction of families in Phnom Penh.
International rights groups met US officials last week to try to get Obama to bring up rights issues with Cambodian premier Hun Sen during his trip. They did not come away with high hopes of any public statement.
Hun Sen has brought stability to the Southeast Asian country, which has attracted development aid and industrial investment, but he tolerates no dissent and rights group call his government authoritarian.
In a report this week, Human Rights Watch said more than 300 people had been killed in politically motivated attacks since an agreement in 1991 that ended a civil war, but not one person had been convicted.
It pointed the finger at Cambodian security forces and called on Obama to demand an end to impunity for abusive officials. - Re