Authorities arrested 10 members of the anti-government Khmer National Liberation Front on Wednesday night and yesterday morning, after they were seen publicly distributing leaflets in Phnom Penh calling on Cambodians to protest in front of the Vietnamese Embassy.
The Denmark-based dissident group is considered a terrorist organisation by the government.
According to military police spokesman Kheng Tito, the men had distributed hundreds of pamphlets urging people to join an anti-Vietnam demonstration yesterday to coincide with the anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements.
He hailed the arrests as a victory.
“They are active members of the KNLF, whose leader is now living in Denmark. Our competent authorities, including military police and police, have been searching for them and investigating them for many months now,” he said.
According to the KNLF, thousands of their members in Cambodia and Thailand keep a secretive profile to avoid the wrath of authorities. Prime Minister Hun Sen last year claimed that members of the group were hiding in the opposition party.
In April, 13 members of the group were sentenced to between five and nine years in prison for planning hostile acts against the government in a verdict that was decried as politically motivated and lacking in evidence by rights groups.
Six of them remain in hiding, including the KNLF’s vocal leader, Sam Serey.
Chhay Sinnarith, the deputy general director of the National Police, claimed yesterday that the KNLF had been involved in a plot in which explosives were planted outside the Defence Ministry in 2009.
“The Khmer National Liberation Front is an armed terrorist organisation aiming to overthrow the Cambodian government and … the Vietnamese government,” he said.
“This group and its movement have affected the security, safety and stability of the country.”
He also claimed that Cambodia was “cooperating” with Danish police to try to arrest Serey, but the KNLF leader has said he believes he is safe there.
Numerous high-ranking police officials and spokespeople could not be reached yesterday for further comment on the arrests.
But a Phnom Penh police intelligence officer who requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the press said that the 10 were arrested in the capital’s Chamkarmon and Daun Penh districts.
“Among these people, five were arrested in Boeung Keng Kang I commune on [Wednesday] night after they were caught distributing leaflets and other materials to people there,” he said.
The others were arrested in Boeung Raing commune yesterday morning.
“Following their arrests, we confiscated hundreds of KNLF statements, leaflets, hats and other printed materials,” he said.
The men arrested are Chhun Nakong, 28; Liv Yi, 29; Chhun Chhat, 29; Chranh Moch, 24; Lak Liheng, 22; Chan Sna, 27; Chhim Smak, 57; An Than, 35; Pheach Chanra, 29; and Chhay Veth, 40.
They have been detained at police headquarters for questioning and are yet to be formally charged.
In a statement, Serey confirmed that the 10 arrested were members of his group but said the police were violating their “human rights, liberty and freedom of expression”.
“The Khmer National Liberation Front would like to appeal to the international community, human rights organisations and the United Nations to pressure Vietnam and Hun Sen’s Cambodian regime to release all the leaders of the [planned] KNLF demonstration,” he said.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, also condemned the arrests and said he was “expecting the worst” for the group, with long prison sentences likely to be handed down.
“Arresting people for simply handing out pamphlets on the street is a clear violation of human rights, and so the authorities should release this group of activists immediately without charge,” he said.
“The Cambodia government’s continued vendetta against the KNLF, a small political group that has campaigned peacefully for its views, is unseemly and unjustified.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH