Four NGO staffers and a quartet of land activists emerged from police stations across the capital yesterday after being grilled for hours over their participation in the so-called “Black Monday” campaign, conducted in support of rights activists jailed last week over the ongoing Kem Sokha investigation.
Sahmakum Teang Tnaut executive director Ee Sarom and Licadho deputy director Thav Kimsan were the first taken into custody yesterday morning, after being greeted by a heavy contingent of police as they attempted to reach Prey Sar prison, where they had hoped to demonstrate. Borei Keila land activist Sar Sorn soon joined the duo at the Dangkor district police office.
Speaking to the Post following his release, Sarom said he was questioned about yesterday’s event and other details about the campaign, and was released only after signing an agreement to not participate in any future “illegal activities”.
“The detention was unwarranted, because we were only going to support the activists,” he said.
While relieved to be back with his family and colleagues, Sarom said he planned to “continue the campaign”.
Phnom Penh Municipality deputy governor Khuong Sreng said the large deployment of police was needed to maintain order.
“Actions were taken to prevent violators of the law and anarchists from attempting to launch a colour revolution,” Sreng said. “It is an important point that the government has to protect itself from these anarchists and their work overthrowing or having a revolution in Cambodia.”
References to a potential “colour revolution” – a term that usually refers to non-violent popular movements in the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere – have become a staple of ruling party rhetoric, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has invoked the term in asking security officials to stand firm with the government in the face of a theoretical opposition-led revolution. The term has been subsequently parroted by military and police officials in multiple speeches.
Foreign consultants Mathias Pfeifer and Anna Pettersson were also among the Licadho representatives taken in yesterday. The two were arrested outside the Dangkor district police station where their colleague, Kimsan, was being held, and were subsequently moved to the General Department of Immigration near Phnom Penh International Airport for questioning.
Despite fears by some that they could face deportation, both consultants were released a little after 7pm.
On exiting the immigration police office, the duo directed queries to Licadho technical supervisor Am Sam Ath, who said they had been taken in after district police and authorities became curious about the presence of two foreigners dressed in black and participating in the campaign.
“They were asked about why they were at the protest and questioned about where they worked and what they did,” he said.
Sam Ath, who was questioned by the immigration police as well, said he was queried about the scope of the duo’s work, whether the group had informed ministry officials of their employment at the NGO, given that they were foreigners, and why the two didn’t have a Ministry of Labour-issued workbook.
“I told them that we are a local NGO and we don’t have to report foreign workers and they don’t need workbooks,” he added.
He said yesterday’s events only revealed the government’s intent to instil fear among NGOs and rights groups working in Cambodia.
Uk Hai Sela, head of investigations and procedures at the Immigration Department, said the Licadho consultants were asked to produce their passports and queried about their motivations for attending the protest.
“We interrogated them about their motivation to dress in black, but the foreigners said that they just wanted to show support to civil society and had no intentions of causing any problems to society,” he added.
Also arrested and released yesterday were Boeung Kak Lake activists Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha and Bov Sophea, who were allegedly also heading to the planned protest at Prey Sar but were scooped up by police before even leaving their own neighbourhoods.
In a report circulated online yesterday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng appeared to give Prime Minister Hun Sen a rundown of the day’s events and the interrogation of NGO workers and land activists.
“We educated them, questioned them, and made them sign agreements to stop those activities, and have preserved it for serving law enforcement next time,” the report reads. “After taking action at 10am, we saw that the situation calmed down.”
Only the day before, the Interior Ministry had asked all provincial and municipal governors to evaluate the current situation and delegate responsibilities at various levels to regularly trace the activities of political parties, NGOs, monks and workers.
“Starting from May 9, authorities, police and security guards stationed at the Phnom Penh Municipality and other provinces should crack down and solve such situations to avoid violence,” a directive posted to the Interior Ministry’s website reads. “They must not abandon these prioritised tasks.”
In a show of support to the Black Monday campaign, self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy took to Facebook following the arrests and posted a video of himself dressed in black, saying it was symbolic of the “bad luck [of] people faced by dictatorial regimes”.
“So we must join forces to end darkness and end dictatorship to bring rights, freedom and full democracy for Khmer citizens,” Rainsy said.
Dismissing Rainsy’s comments, ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan said the campaign was only an attempt to bring about a “colour revolution” in the country.
“It is representative of Pol Pot, that black colour,” Eysan said. “He [Rainsy] wants to bring the country back to war, which we have already moved on from.”