The first real attempt to test a new ban on public demonstrations was answered swiftly yesterday morning as five representatives of the Boeung Kak lake community were arrested while attempting to deliver a petition to the French embassy.
At about 8:30am, activists Tep Vanny, Yorm Bopha, Phan Chhunreth, Bo Chhorvy and Song Srey Leap were roughly shoved into a van by plainclothes officers and Daun Penh district security guards and driven to Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters on the outskirts of town.
The five, who insisted their delivery of the petition did not constitute a demonstration, were released after about eight hours in detention, during which they were “advised” by officials.
Vanny’s husband, Ou Kong, characterised the arrest of his wife and the other representatives as yet another act of intimidation against the Boeung Kak community.
“The crackdown shows that the government authorities are obviously in a bad mood since the people are standing up against the unfairness in the society, and it also shows the fear of the government over losing support from the people,” he said.
Municipal Hall spokesman Long Dimanche, however, maintained that there had been no charges, and that police had simply detained the activists to give them some advice.
“To me, [police] did not dare to charge them or send them to the court; they just advised them. But if you want the details, you should contact Phnom Penh Municipal Police officials,” he said.
Chuon Narin, deputy Phnom Penh police chief, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The Ministry of Interior on Saturday issued an injunction against protests, saying in a statement that “demonstrations through public meetings, [or] marching is postponed temporarily until the security situation and public order is guaranteed”.
However, Boeung Kak activist Kong Chantha maintained yesterday that there had been only 10 people in the group, and they had been walking quietly – without any signs or posters – to deliver their petition, which asked the embassy to intervene in the case of fellow activist Chan Puthisak, who was arrested while observing a garment protest last Thursday.
“They tried to ask for information from the authorities, but they did not tell us where they detained our activist [Puthisak]. We were so worried about our activist’s safety, we decided to make up a petition and expected to file it at the French embassy in order to help us find and free our activist,” she said.
The document was later delivered without incident in the presence of several human rights organisations.
Just before 5pm, the five activists were released after agreeing to thumbprint a contract saying they would refrain from protesting temporarily – not indefinitely, as the first draft of the contract had stipulated, Vanny said.
“The authorities asked us and advised us about the new Phnom Penh Municipal Hall regulations, which do not allow gatherings or protests, which possibly cause problems in society,” Vanny said. “After that, we promised not to gather for the time being. Then, they freed us at 4:45pm.”
Police also informed the group of the whereabouts of Puthisak, saying he was being held in a prison in Kampong Cham, Vanny added.
Local NGO Community Legal Education Center told the Post yesterday that all 23 protesters arrested on Thursday and Friday had been sent to Correctional Centre 3 in Kampong Cham province.
Rights groups yesterday decried the arrests as a gross violation – especially given that it wasn’t a full-fledged demonstration, said Sia Phearum, president of the Housing Rights Task Force.
“We are so sorry about the arrest of the five women that was conducted by the government authorities when those women hadn’t even set out to protest,” he said.
Nay Vanda, deputy head of the human rights monitoring program at Adhoc, called it an example of “illegal arrest and illegal detention”.
“As a human rights activist, I strongly condemn the arrests,” Vanda said.
“I appeal to all victims in Cambodia to demand the rights … that they are losing,” he added. “This is the right time to stand up.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE