In hiding since being charged in 2005 with participating in an illegal
paramilitary wing of the opposition party, former SRP activists fear
further implication in ‘Tiger Head' group.
Police hold up a photograph of a suspected Tiger Head movement member at a press conference in Phnom Penh last month.
Terrorism suspects denied Counsel
Rights groups have called for the release
of more details surrounding the arrest, interrogation and trial of the
five terrorism suspects, saying they have not been allowed access to
legal council. Monitors from the UN as well as Cambodian rights groups
Licadho and Adhoc have been prevented from speaking with the suspects.
Chan Saveth, a legal counselor with Adhoc, said he was told by
authorities he would not be allowed to even contact any of the
suspects, who are being held in Phnom Penh's PJ Prison, until the
investigation was over - a condition he described as "definitely not
PASSING in and out of pagodas on the outskirts of Bangkok, Khut Kong Kea, a self-exiled Cambodian, thought he had faded from the spotlight, even if not seamlessly. But he fears the recent foiled bomb plot in Phnom Penh could return attention to him from authorities in his homeland, which he fled in 2005 for fear of being arrested as a dissident.
In an interview by phone with the Post, the 53-year-old said he fled to Bangkok after he discovered his name was on a "blacklist" of people authorities intended to round up after their arrest of Cheam Channy.
Sam Rainsy parliamentarian Cheam Channy was arrested in 2005 and detained in a military prison in Phnom Penh on charges of organised crime, fraud and raising a rebel army for the opposition party.
He served one year before pressure from civil society groups and, eventually, a pardon from the King, secured an early end to his seven-year sentence.
But whether or not the government's hunt for the alleged "shadow army" foot soldiers is over, the men it implicated who took flight to the backstreets of Bangkok fear authorities will connect them to the most recent incident of suspected terrorist activity to challenge their rule.
Of those who have sought refuge in Bangkok since 2005, Khut Kong Kea said six other men and their families remain, living and receiving food as alms in pagodas in the metropolis's outer environs - and none have received asylum.
"Some others were arrested by Thai police and sent back with other illegal immigrants," he said.
"And now, since we heard the news that the government has arrested Som Ek, we constantly change where we stay since we heard he admitted some other people outside the country were involved in his group."
Four people, including a former provincial deputy police chief and a suspected opposition party defector, were charged January 12 under Cambodia's antiterrorism law over an alleged bomb plot on state facilities. The charges stem from three small bombs discovered January 2 outside the Defence Ministry and the state-run television station, TV3.
On January 31, authorities said they arrested a fifth man, whom they would not identify, on the same charges in connection with the bombs and on suspicion of recruiting and training terrorists.
Included among the accused are Reach Samnang, Mondulkiri province's former deputy police chief, and Lek Bunnhean, a one-time Sam Rainsy Party member who, according to multiple sources, defected to the ruling Cambodian People's Party and last year publicly accused the opposition leader of involvement in the 1998 rocket attack allegedly targeting Prime Minister Hun Sen in Siem Reap. Two former resistance fighters, Phy Savong and Som Ek, the alleged plot mastermind, also stand accused.
Police say Som Ek has confessed to organising both the most recent bombing attempt and an earlier bomb plot to blow up the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument in July 2007.
The government has alleged an anti-government organisation called the Tiger Head Movement masterminded the failed bomb plot with the support of international backers.
Like his fellow accused former Sam Rainsy Party activist, 41-year-old Kong Samnang fled Cambodia in 2005 along with his wife and children.
"I escaped after being sentenced to 10 years when the court and government conspired to punish me, and I escaped from being killed by Hun Sen's bodyguards," he told the Post by telephone.
"I've been very concerned since I heard Som Ek and Lek Bunnhean were arrested. They are saying people outside the country are involved in their group. We will not escape from being accused because either one might have our names on a list of people they spoke with in Thailand."
That government officials have been tight-lipped about their investigations has not helped Kong Samnang's anxiety. National police spokesman Kieth Chantarith would only say police were still investigating the case and more arrests were expected, without elaborating due to the sensitivity of the case.
Meanwhile, the former wanted activists in Bangkok are laying as low as they can.
Chea Socheab had been incarcerated in Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison in 2003 for several months for joining in an anti-government song at a public rally. The 35-year-old said he was not prepared to go behind bars again and saw refuge across the border as his only option in 2005.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok has twice dropped his application for political asylum, he said.
"I'm stuck here and can't do anything. It's like being stuck out at sea," he lamented.
The UNHCR said it was not familiar with the cases of the men interviewed by the Post.
Chea Socheab said that when he first arrived in Bangkok, he would regularly meet Lek Bunnhean and Som Ek. They were drawn to each other's company because of their shared background in the isolation of a foreign country, but never discussed dissident activities, he insisted.
"I did not know they had started this Tiger Head Movement," he said.
Khut Kong Kea said he met Som Ek in Thailand in 2006 and 2007. "Cambodian refugees outside the country, like those in Thailand, just became friends with Som Ek," he said.
Mobilising an armed resistance to the Cambodian government was far off the radar of the self-imposed exiles who have been bogged down trying to eke out a living and dodge local authorities, he said.
"There was no involvement between people outside the country and Som Ek and Lek Bunnhean. They did this for their ambition only," he said.
"But I am very concerned they will take our names to the government for us to be arrested."
He rejected the original charges against him and denied the opposition party had raised an army to advance its political agenda. "It was the structure each party needed for its safety," he said.
Khut Kong Kea entered politics in 1995, first as a member of the Khmer Nation Party and then, when it folded in 1998, he joined the Sam Rainsy Party.
He said he sought asylum through the UNHCR, but his case was dropped when, after Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia, they saw the security threat against alleged opposition party dissidents as limited. Khut Kong Kea figured the same protection afforded the high-profile opposition party leader would not be extended to him and decided against a return.
Meanwhile, life for him and his wife and eight children has bottomed out. "We survive by eating food that remains at the pagoda. I used to struggle for the nation, but I've become nothing."