Three Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community (CCFC) staff members detained on Wednesday were allegedly plotting a Pol Pot-style “peasant revolution” based on evidence authorities found during a training workshop, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak told CamboJA.
CCFC president Theng Savoeun and two of his colleagues — senior officer Nhel Pheap and project officer Than Hach — were involved in revolutionary activities similar to that which caused the deaths of millions of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime, the Interior Ministry spokesperson said in justification of their arrest.
CCFC is known as an organization supporting the land rights of farmers and the workshop was intended as a reflection on the organization’s past projects, according to an attendee.
“The person [Theng Savoeun] confessed about his activities and the evidence was in his computer, a manuscript teaching the people to make the peasant revolution,” Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesperson, told CamboJA.
“What did the peasant revolution try to do?” Sopheak continued. “It was necessary to overthrow the capitalists, the oppressed classes — whoever you are — and millions of people died because of the peasant revolution that we have encountered first.”
“The second way is to overthrow the government and how to overthrow it?” he said. “It is overthrown without voting, and we need to keep the peace.”
The three detained CCFC staff, along with 14 others who had attended the CCFC workshop and were traveling from Ratanakiri to Phnom Penh on Wednesday, were interrogated by police for nearly 24 hours straight, according to one CCFC staffer who was also questioned by police. The other 14 people were released and allowed to return home.
By noon on Saturday, police were still questioning the three detained CCFC staff and had blocked the road in front of the police headquarters in Ratanakiri, according to human rights NGO Adhoc. Their family members and a lawyer had not been allowed to meet them.
Around 37 people had convened in Ratanakiri for a workshop from May 14 to May 17 to receive training on agricultural techniques, according to a representative from human rights NGO Adhoc.
But the training had also “dared to discuss openly about the current situation of Cambodia” CCFC representative Mey Vuthy, who attended the workshop, told CamboJA on Thursday.
In the middle of the training, Cambodia’s National Election Committee had on Monday officially rejected the leading opposition Candlelight Party’s registration for the elections.
Adhoc spokesperson Soeng Senkaruna said that Savoeun’s past activities focused on teaching farmers how to grow crops and found the accusations to differ from his work.
“If there is such an accusation, it is very serious for the Cambodian Farmers’ Association to accuse it against the purpose, contrary to his [Savoeun’s] vision in the past,” Senkaruna said.
Savoeun’s wife, Nhung Sok Heang, who remained in Ratanakiri to wait for her husband, said that her husband had not been engaged in any peasant revolution and only sought to help farmers.
“It is very unfair for my family, my family just help improve the lives of the poor who are affected by various impacts,” Heang said. “He sacrificed all his physical and mental strength to help the people to have a decent life and live in prosperity.”
More than 200 farmers, including mothers holding newborn babies and the elderly, gathered from five provinces in front of the Interior Ministry on Friday to present a petition demanding the release of Savoeun and his colleagues before returning home in the evening.
Svay Rieng province CCFC member Khieu Saron, who attended the rally, says she has known CCFC’s president Savoeun since 2013 and denied the allegations made by the Interior Ministry. She said CCFC’s trainings had typically taught farmers how to better grow fruits and vegetables and reduce their reliance on chemicals.
“Speaking of them [the detained CCFC staff], they have never done anything to harm society, only to make society prosperous,” Saron said. “In other words, he [Savoeun] works on agriculture, whether it is farming, using chemicals, it is this he teaches us.
Another farmer who came from Kampong Speu to join the protest was Khon Khon, who said CCFC’s staff had helped farmers in her province regain a livelihood after a private company invaded their land.
“Please help us, please release them because they are a bridge for us, for thousands of us,” Khon said, appealing to Prime Minister Hun Sen. “I, and we the people, would like to ask you, Father of Peace, to help us release them as soon as possible.”
Ratanakkiri Provincial police chief Ung Sopheap did not answer his phone when repeatedly contacted by CamboJA.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, described the Cambodian authorities’ arrest of the association’s leaders as arbitrary and an abuse of human rights as July’s elections neared.
“Sadly, this is not surprising because the human rights situation in Cambodia is in the midst of a massive, spiraling downturn where any sort of challenge, real or perceived, to the government is met with a maximum display of intimidation and punishment,” Robertson said in a statement. “NGOs and civil society groups like CCFC are bearing the brunt of this crackdown.”