Police in Phnom Penh have arrested 10 Cambodians whom they accuse of setting up an armed unit in a bid to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a police spokesman said Thursday.
The 10 were allegedly members of the Denmark-based Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), which has been deemed a terrorist group by the Cambodian government.
They were taken into custody late Wednesday and Thursday on charges of conspiracy to topple the government, said National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Kirt Chantharith.
The move drew criticism from a human rights group, which said the arrest violated their rights and questioned the government’s basis for labeling KNLF a terrorist group.
“The [KNLF] movement has intended to topple the government by establishing illegal armed forces, spying on military secrets, distributing anti-government leaflets, training terrorists, and conducting training along the Cambodian-Thai border,” Kirt Chantharith said.
Police also confiscated “evidence” that included books criticizing Hun Sen, he said
The 10, most of whom were farmers, had planned to hold a peaceful protest outside the Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to demand that Vietnam respect the Paris Peace Accords, Kirt Chantharith said.
Signed in 1991, the accords, which ended the Vietnam War, required the parties involved to recognize the fundamental national rights of Cambodian independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity.
Many Cambodians are wary of Vietnam’s influence over their country’s affairs.
An estimated 1.7 million people, or one in four Cambodians, died in what came to be called the “Killing Fields” after the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The regime was unseated when Vietnam invaded the country four years later.
Vietnam occupied the country for a decade before withdrawing its troops and signing the Paris Peace Agreement to restore sovereignty and stability to Cambodia.
The KNLF says on its website that the two-year-old group consists of Cambodian nationalists and democrats who work with democratic countries and the United Nations to achieve peace, freedom, and democracy.
It says it is working to change the government through nonviolent means.
Its mission is to seek justice for and free Cambodians from Vietnamese "neocolonialism" and the “dictatorship regime under Hun Sen” based on international law, the Paris Peace Accords, and the rights of the Cambodian people, the KNLF said.
“The front wanted to protest in front of the Vietnamese embassy to demand that it respect the Paris Peace Accords because the Vietnamese government hasn’t implemented them,” said a statement issued by the KNLF.
It called on local and international human rights groups "to pressure the Hun Sen dictatorship to release the demonstrators immediately.”
Last year, the Cambodian government deemed the KNLF a terrorist group, claiming it was plotting to overthrow President Hun Sen’s government.
Police action questioned
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, criticized the arrest, saying the 10 men had wanted to hold a peaceful protest outside the Vietnamese embassy within their rights as Cambodians .
“If they want to protest against the Vietnamese embassy, it is their right,” he said. “They are not involved in any criminal activity.”
He said the government must differentiate between demonstrators and KNLF members and questioned the basis for branding KNLF a terrorist group, arguing instead that it is a nongovernmental organization.
In April, a Cambodian court sentenced 13 KNLF members to five to nine years in prison after finding them guilty of plotting to overthrow the government, according to reports.
Of the six tried in absentia was Sam Serey, founder of the KNLF.
Rights groups had denounced the verdicts as politically motivated and lacking evidence and claimed that torture had been used to extract testimony, The Cambodia Daily reported.
“The Khmer National Liberation Front is an illegal group, because it causes national security concerns,” Long Dymong, spokesman of Phnom Penh City Hall, told RFA. “They are extremists, and they want to topple the government.”
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.