Local authorities in Svay Rieng province on Tuesday summoned four villagers for questioning over alleged connections to the Cambodia National Rescue Movement and a purported “colour revolution” plot a day after they delivered petitions in Phnom Penh over longstanding land disputes alongside hundreds of others.
Andong Trabek Commune Chief Kong Vet said villagers were interrogated because they had gone to Phnom Penh “without informing the authorities”, adding that authorities feared they were part of a revolutionary plot orchestrated by the CNRM – a nonviolent movement formed by exiled former opposition figures that the government has labelled a “terrorist” group.
“We just wanted to ask about the goal of the petition filing, because they went there without informing the authorities and they gathered around and acted illegally. We are afraid of the colour revolution or CNRM, because they do this without legal permission,” he said, referring to the gathering of nearly 300 villagers from four provinces at the Land Management Ministry and Council of Ministers on Monday.
The villagers, representing 37 communities, had petitioned the government to solve land disputes that had dragged for on as long as a decade.
The group that organised the delivery, the Coalition of Cambodia Farmer Community (CCFC), just last week had two events broken up by authorities. One of them, in Takeo, resulted in four CCFC members being interrogated over possible connections to the CNRM. Authorities also blocked some would-be participants in Monday’s petition delivery from travelling to Phnom Penh.
In October last year, in the furore surrounding purported colour revolutions that preceded the forced dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, the government’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit had released a video that claimed the CCFC was building a network of tens of thousands to start a “green revolution”.
Lounh Tha, a Svay Rieng community representative who was summoned along with Ken Khun, Suon Seanglek and Lorn Channy, said the four were accompanied by 20 other villagers when they went to be questioned. According to Tha, officials asked about the petitions before threatening the villagers.
“You must not go to Phnom Penh anymore to put the petition because when you gather together it can be accused of being the CNRM or colour revolution,” Tha said the commune chief told them.
Seng Lot, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management affirmed the right of the villagers to come to Phnom Penh to deliver petitions to the ministry as they had on Monday, but declined to comment on the actions of the Andong Trabek commune authorities.
Channy, one of the village representatives, said that authorities’ actions were depriving the people of their rights and freedoms.
“If they do not want the [people to] protest or demand [anything], why do they not solve the land dispute for the people?” he asked. “If they solve the case for us, it will end.”
Commune Police Chief Poeng Bunthoeun hung up on a reporter, and subsequent calls went ignored. Sam Sam Ol, Romeas Hek district police chief, said he was unaware of the case. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached.
The head of CCFC, Theng Savoeun, dismissed the allegations of colour revolution as “an excuse” for the failure of local authorities. Savoeun was himself unaware of the accusations of CCFC being part of a colour revolution prior to last week. “Our goal is to help the vulnerable people in land disputes and agricultural cultivation, and we do not connect ourselves to a colour revolution or the CNRM,” he said.
Political analyst Meas Nee said thanks to fears sparked by the large pro-opposition protests following the 2013 elections – a clear sign of dissatisfaction – the government is now failing to distinguish between those who wish to overthrow them and those simply fighting for social justice. As a result, he said, a whole host of activists are being lumped together under the “colour revolution” label.
“They [government] are building up enemies around themselves,” Nee cautioned, adding that “they generally perceive anyone who is speaking out, or involved in organising people, as [part of] the colour revolution movement, and this is wrong. The more the government does this, the more that the government shows they do not have a recourse for the people’s resentment”.
It is likely, Nee continued, that CCFC was initially “blacklisted” by authorities at a local level, and that perception made its way up to the higher levels of government.
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon