Police in the capital yesterday arrested the alleged leader of a “secessionist plot”, Beehive Radio station director Mam Sonando, who had already been abroad for two months when hundreds of security personnel stormed a Kratie province village in May.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, told the Post that the Association of Democrats president, who arrived back in the country on Thursday after spending time in the US and France, was charged with plotting against public civil servants, insurrection, interference in the fulfilment of public duties and inciting people to use weapons against authorities.
Sonando’s wife, Din Phanara, said that police surrounded the house yesterday morning, and entered while her husband was dressing.
“About 20 police had come into [my] house waiting in front of the door to our room, and they read the arrest warrant for [us], and then they took him into their car,” said Phanara, who denied her husband’s involvement in any wrongdoing.
Sonando was wanted for his alleged involvement in events that led to the forced eviction of hundreds of families involved in a land dispute with Russian company Casotim in Kratie’s Pro Ma village – an eviction in which a 14-year-old girl was shot dead by government forces.
The government has described the Kratie operation as an attempt to quell a “secessionist plot” purportedly led by community activist Bun Ratha, and masterminded by Sonando. Ratha and other villagers have repeatedly denied any such plot, saying they were simply applying for land titles.
The arrest prompted Ratha, who has eluded authorities since the Kratie operation, to break his long silence by phoning into a press conference arranged by US-based opposition group Khmer People Power Movement at Beehive Radio yesterday afternoon.
Ratha once again denied the existence of a secessionist plot as well as Sonando’s involvement, and contested the charge that Sonando had incited villagers to use weapons, saying that all the villagers were unarmed.
“The accusation of Mr Hun Sen’s government is not legal,” Ratha said, calling the matter another example of a company stealing villagers’ land.
“I would dare to go to clarify, but if [my] clarification is in front of a court that is not independent, what does my clarification mean?”
“Provided that there is an international independent court, I would dare to go to clarify,” he added.
Civil society groups and opposition parties have called the arrest political intimidation, saying the government has historically cracked down on dissent ahead of elections.
“The [CPP] has always gone against anyone who protests against the government,” said SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann. “This is not a democratic society.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Ou Virak said it was part of an orchestrated distraction from the killing in Kratie.
“Since that disgraceful act, the authorities have gone to great lengths to create an alternative narrative – with creative accusations of secessionism and sedition and now this arrest – to what was clearly another case of Cambodian people being forcibly and illegally removed from their land in order for a private business to make money,” Virak said in a statement.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the CPP may view groups like Sonando’s as dangerous unified sources of dissent further down the road.
“For some time, several years, Mam Sonando has been able to rally a large group of people; the Association of Democrats, and the members of that organisation have been able to use his radio station,” he said, adding the station sometimes serves as a forum for callers and guests to air grievances. “Sometimes I tune in, and it is highly critical of the government and politicians.”
Chea Bamrong, deputy president of the Association of Democrats, said Sonando had probably been arrested for statements made in a speech upon his return.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said last week the government had no plans to arrest Sonando, but said yesterday he had been unaware of the arrest warrant.
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