The head of a Cambodian radio station was arrested Sunday for allegedly instigating villagers to be involved in armed clashes with security forces over a land dispute.
The government accused Mam Sonando, the director of FM station 105, also known as Beehive Radio, of orchestrating a mass occupation of land in Broma village in Kratie province’s Chhlong district that triggered a security crackdown and bloody clashes in May, officials said.
The clashes occurred after some 1,000 village families refused a government order to vacate state land they had used for farming and which activists said had been awarded as a concession to Russian firm Casotim, which plans to set up a rubber plantation.
A nongovernmental organization, Association of Democrats, led by Mam Sonando, has been accused of sparking the land revolt and the ensuing clashes in which in an innocent teenage girl was fatally shot by security forces.
"This morning, at 8:58, seven cars and [a] score of police came to arrest Mr. Mam Sonando at his residence. Please be informed about this," the radio station chief said in a brief email to RFA.
Mam Sonando, in his 60's, was in Europe when the security forces surrounded Broma village and moved to evict the villagers on May 16 in a violent crackdown. He returned home on July 12. He had earlier rejected any links to the revolt in an interview with RFA.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had last month insinuated that Mam Sonando should be arrested, saying he had been leading a "secession" plot and attempting to establish "a state within a state."
According to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, the Kratie provincial court issued a warrant of arrest on Mam Sonando on July 2 but it could not be served on him because he was abroad.
Human rights groups protested the arrest, saying it was politically motivated.
"It's shocking that Mam Sonando was arrested for encouraging people for the land grabbing, which is what the government claims," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"The biggest land grabber in Cambodia is the prime minister and his business cronies who are taking land from poor people all over the country. So, it's really sheer hypocrisy that this has happened."
Mam Sonando "has done nothing wrong over the years except to run a radio station that broadcasts news that sometimes the prime minister and the people around the prime minister don't like," Adams said.
Several thousand Cambodians are driven every year from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects, reports have said.
Economic land concessions granted to private developers have been at the root of several high-profile disputes in recent years, including in the Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Kela areas of Phnom Penh, where residents say they were forced from their homes.
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, called Mam Sonando's arrest groundless, saying the government wants to use Sonando as a "scapegoat" over the land crisis in Kratie province.
He felt the government delayed the arrest to wait for the conclusion Friday of the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held in Phonm Penh and attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other international dignitaries.
"I think the government waited until the ASEAN summit is over. It does not want to arrest Mr. Mam Sonando while the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top ASEAN diplomats along with many journalists are present in Cambodia," Ou Virak said.
Mam Sonando has been arrested twice before.
In 2003, he was arrested and charged with giving "false" information and inciting people to "discriminate" and "commit crimes."
In 2005, he was held and charged with defamation over a radio interview that elicited criticism of Hun Sen's Cambodian border control issues with Vietnam.
Reported by Chea Sotheacheath and Vichey Anandh for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.