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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - For KNLF, a life in the shadows

Khmer Krom Buddhist monk Thach Koung (right) arrives at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in March
Khmer Krom Buddhist monk Thach Koung (right) arrives at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in March. Heng Chivoan

For KNLF, a life in the shadows

Another alleged member of the Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), a Denmark-based dissident group labelled as a terrorist organisation by the government, was arrested on Monday, police said yesterday.

Kirt Chantharith, National Police spokesman, said Hen Chan was questioned and held in Phnom Penh after crossing the border from Thailand with a fake passport. He was sent to Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday.

“During the arrest, police confiscated 250 copies of a book by the illegal political organisation. The book criticises the government and encourages people to violently counter the government,” Chantharith said.

But according to KNLF founder and president Sam Serey, who wrote the book Chan intended on distributing, neither the book nor the messenger had violent intentions.

“Mr Hen Chan is a Cambodian … who had been studying in Thailand where he was a monk,” said Serey, adding that Chan did not use a fake passport to cross from Thailand, where he was applying to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for asylum.

Chan’s arrest follows the sentencing of Serey and 12 other alleged members of the KNLF last month to between five and nine years in prison for planning hostile attacks against the government. Six have eluded capture, including Serey, who is in Denmark.

Rights groups decried the verdict as politically motivated, with lawyers of the defendants and the Minority Rights Organisation (MIRO) maintaining that members of the accused had been illegally detained and even tortured.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the trial showed “a clear effort by the government to try and portray [the] KNLF as an armed insurrectionary group.” But, he said, “the prosecution didn’t provide any compelling evidence to prove it was true”.

One of the accused, who was tried in absentia and is still on the run, said yesterday that life as a member of the KNLF is a constant struggle.

“We are living in fear of safety. My life is so miserable after fleeing from Cambodia,” the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Post.

“In fact, I love my country and homeland, because my parents are there, but the government painted me and the KNLF as terrorists.”

The source – who is seeking asylum in the Philippines – said even Thailand is not safe, with members living in hiding, in fear of arrest by Thai and Cambodian authorities.

Serey said thousands more members in Cambodia and Thailand live in the shadows to avoid persecution.

“We are anonymous; if we show our identities to the authorities, we will be arrested,” he said by phone yesterday. “[The government] wants to eliminate the opposition. They do it to discredit us. They always blame, then arrest and kill. That is their tactic,” he said. “We don’t use any violence; we use only paper and pen. What reason do they have for calling us terrorists?”

Serey, who founded the KNLF in December 2012, maintains that the group exists to “fight for freedom and democracy” and to bring “rights abuses under the regime of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen to the international community”. But since the election last year, when Hun Sen claimed “armed rebels” and “terrorists”, including the KNLF, were hiding in the opposition, life has become much harder for KNLF members.

One, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Post that he hides his affiliation with the group from even those closest to him.

“Even my parents know nothing about me joining the KNLF, but I always talk to them about history. This is my way to gain people’s attention to oppose the government,” he said.

But with the group under attack, he said, members had devised new methods of communicating with
one another.

“We contact each other through Skype and by putting letters in trees. We have no money from the KNLF, but we volunteer to work to spread lessons of democracy and liberty,” he said.

The source, a Khmer Krom, said he hoped the group could “liberate” Cambodia from Vietnam but would use peaceful methods to achieve its goals.

“The government accuses us of being a terrorist group. It’s a serious accusation. We have no bombs to attack anyone; we don’t kill or rob anyone.”

Serey said he hopes to one day return to Cambodia to live alongside his members.

But with an arrest warrant against him, this remains a distant dream.

“When Cambodia has proper democracy, I will return,” he said.

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