A Cambodian activist who has sought refuge abroad after being accused by the government of masterminding an alleged ‘secessionist’ plot in Kratie province said Tuesday that he plans to return to lead mass protests to clear his name and defend villagers' land rights.
Bun Ratha, who has been ordered jailed for 30 years, went into hiding in an undisclosed country after authorities charged him with leading a land revolt by Broma villagers in Kratie that climaxed in bloody clashes with military personnel in May.
Speaking in a phone interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, he said he plans to lead 10,000 villagers in a demonstration in Phnom Penh calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to explain why the villagers’ protest was deemed an anti-government movement.
“I would like to get Samdech [Hun Sen] to elaborate on why the villagers were accused of rebellion. We are villagers, but he used his weapons to displace us,” he said.
The May clashes occurred after about 1,000 village families refused a government order to vacate state land in Broma village they had occupied for farming and which activists said had been awarded as a concession to Russian firm Casotim wanting to set up a rubber plantation.
Hun Sen had condemned the villagers’ actions in the land dispute in a nationally televised speech in June, saying they were part of a secession plot attempting to create a “state within a state.”
Bun Ratha has denied the charges that he led Broma villagers in the clash with armed military personnel as part of an effort to establish a self-governing zone, saying he was “framed” by the government.
He said he has collected about 2,000 thumbprint signatures from supporters who plan to join the demonstration, but did not say when the protest will take place.
He urged the international community, including the United Nations, to monitor the planned protests, which he said will also oppose court verdicts against him and prominent activist Mam Sonando.
Both Bun Ratha and Mam Sonando were convicted in October.
Mam Sonando, owner of the independent Beehive radio station and president of the Association of Democrats, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He is currently serving his time at a prison in Phnom Penh and has been denied release on bail.
Bun Ratha said he is not afraid of being arrested upon coming out of hiding as long as he can gather enough villagers to stage the protest.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, said Bun Ratha would likely be arrested upon his return, but still has the right to return to Cambodia if he wants.
He added that the people have the right to hold demonstration as guaranteed by the constitution.
Villagers embroiled in the land dispute who returned to Broma after being forced to leave following the May crackdown said last week that soldiers dispatched to the area in the clashes have confiscated their land and crops.
Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.