Seventeen human rights monitors, journalists and protesters were arrested in Koh Kong province yesterday morning when police and alleged “instigators” cracked down on a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of three imprisoned environmental activists.
The group was held at the provincial police station for about eight hours, where they were interrogated about their “involvement” in the protest before eventually being released at 6:15pm.
Speaking from the police station, In Kongchit, a provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho who was among those arrested, said he had been questioned about the purpose of the protest and who was leading it.
In the morning, about 100 people from Chi Khor Krom commune had gathered outside of Koh Kong Provincial Court to call for a solution to a land dispute they are engaged in, and for the release of three activists arrested last month over their activities against Direct Access – a Vietnamese company accused of illegally dredging a local estuary.
Yesterday’s action was the latest in a string of demonstrations to have taken place outside of the court since the three activists – who are affiliated with environmental NGO Mother Nature – were arrested two weeks ago.
Kongchit said things proceeded calmly until a second group of “protesters” arrived demanding that the activists return home, and attempting to forcefully break up the gathering.
“In fact, that group was supported by the authorities to disperse the protesters,” he said.
Environmental activist Ven Vorn, who was also arrested yesterday, said the “instigators” had been planted by authorities “to separate us and stop the protest”.
Security forces cracked down on the demonstration, dispersing the crowd in what several witnesses termed “violent” fashion, and arresting those participating in the protest and observing it – including rights monitors, a medic and journalists.
“The violence caused one woman to fall unconscious”, Vorn said.
Out Ridy, another protester arrested yesterday, said authorities “beat me and injured me” before sending her to the police station.
At the station, Ridy said she was questioned about who initiated the protest, and what its aim was. “I replied that no one initiated it and I came by myself,” she said. “It is an injustice. They did it because they have the authority.”
The arrests came on the heels of a directive issued by Khemarak Phumin Town Hall warning people to stop protesting or face “administrative measures”.
Koh Kong Provincial Governor Bun Let could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Provincial police chief Somkhet Vean said the arrests were made so authorities could question people about the recent slew of protests. He added that there had been no intention to keep the group detained.
But while police sought to play down the arrests, rights groups yesterday rallied together to condemn them.
In a joint statement, NGOs Adhoc, Licadho and CLEC said they were “outraged” by the group’s detention, which they said was a clear reaction to weeks of peaceful protests by Mother Nature supporters.
“Detaining observers, media and a medic as well as protesters is yet another scare tactic now used by the government to intimidate and suppress peaceful dissent of grassroots groups,” said Licadho director Naly Pilorge.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, Mother Nature’s co-founder, who was deported from the Kingdom in February, said he was “not at all surprised” by the authorities’ actions.
“It reaffirms what we had known all along, and that is the fact that the criminal enterprise that controls Koh Kong is growing uneasy about seeing local people standing up for what is right and just.”
Gonzalez-Davidson added that he was “quite shocked to see how the level of incompetence of the ‘authorities’ has reached such new high levels”.
“Today, they started arresting human rights monitors and journalists who had not even been involved in the actual protests, and that is (at least in Koh Kong) unheard of.”