Cambodian human rights activists and their supporters are continuing their “Black Monday” protests as they try to gain the release of fellow human rights workers and an election official who were jailed on what many believe are politically motivated charges.
Five women, land-rights activists from communities in the city that have been hit with forced evictions, were arrested on Monday as they gathered near Phnom Penh’s Chenla Theater at about 8 a.m. by police in riot gear, ending their protest before it began.
At least one of the activists was injured while being detained by security forces, one of the women told RFA’s Khmer Service.
They were taken to the Tuol Kouk district police station where three of them were released after they signed a pledged to stay out of future protests. Two more were held longer, but were released after agreeing to a pledge aimed at preventing them from wearing black and attending Black Monday protests.
Why wear black
“They asked us who is the leader, and why we are wearing black,” said Nim Chray from the Thmar Kaul village, located near the Phnom Penh International Airport. The village has been a symbol of Cambodian protests against forced evictions.
Thmar Kaul has been known as “SOS village” since residents painted “SOS” on their roofs in the hope that President Obama would see their distress signal when Air Force One flew into Phnom Penh in 2012 for the East-ASEAN Summit. The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia
“We told them that there is no leader. It is all of us, our heart,” she said. “It is our Khmer gratitude. As the civil society helps us, we must help them.”
She said that one of the five women was injured when the authorities forcedly pushed her onto the truck during the arrest.
“Now she could not stand, could not eat, could not get up because the Tuol Kouk security threw her into the truck as if she was dog and cat,” Nim Chray said. “They hurt her ribs and her stomach is severely injured. She cried the whole morning.”
Phnom Penh municipality spokesperson, Chin Bunthoeun, said they were arrested because they didn’t get permission to demonstrate.
“If they wish to rally and express their view, they should inform the district authorities, either verbally or in writing,” he told RFA. “We have Freedom Park, no one is going to ban them, and the wearing black or whatever is not important. It is a different issue.”
'There is no arrest'
Hundreds of security forces were deployed around Prey Sar prison where the Black Monday subjects are detained.
Sar Kheng, deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, denied that the five women were arrested.
“There is no arrest,” he said. “They were just asked to go for questioning. Do not be confused.”
Secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC), Suon Bunsak, considered the Phnom Penh authorities’ action a human rights violation.
“This totally violated the principles of the human rights treaties to which Cambodia is a signatory country, and especially Cambodia’s constitution, which states that Cambodian people have the right and freedom to meet peacefully to express their concerns as well as to send messages to the government to resolve those concerns,” he said.
Monday’s arrests follow eight arrests of human rights workers and activists last Monday for similar offenses. They were wearing black shirts and attempting to demonstrate for the release of four officers from human rights group Adhoc and a senior election official.
The four Adhoc officers and the election official, along with a U.N. employee, were charged with bribery over their alleged role in a sex scandal involving Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party. Human rights groups accuse the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of attempting to silence its critics with the arrests.
A spokesman for the ruling party has cited similar claims in a lawsuit with a well-known political analyst who has criticized the government.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior government officials have said they will not tolerate the “Black Monday” protests because they threaten social stability.
"Take the legal process. Finding a way out through a smart lawyer is the right way to resolve the problem legitimately," he said after a ceremony with students in Phnom Penh last week following the first Black Monday rally.
Khmer diaspora weighs in
The protests are gaining some supporters in the United States, as Cambodian-Americans are rallying to the cause.
Muon Bunthoeurn, a representative of the Cambodian-American group “Green Village,” told RFA before Monday’s rally that Cambodian-Americans support the Black Monday campaign.
“Today we’ll stage a mass demonstration, and after that we will have a wearing of black attire voluntarily or publishing on our personal Facebook account,” he said.
Rithy Kiri, a Cambodian-American living in a large Khmer community in Long Beach, California, said he wanted to show support for those arrested in Cambodia.
“We are striving to support a change, especially to demand the release of the human rights and other activists whom have been unjustly arrested and jailed,” he said. “We decided that we will continue making our demands until our Khmer people and society have full freedom and rights and until our brothers and sisters are released from prison.”
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.