Activist Tailed by Police, Sought Help From UN Before Arrest

4 min read
Protesters in Phnom Penh walk past a UN vehicle on September 7, 2020. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)

A group of four Khmer Thavrak protesters on Monday believed their tuk-tuk was being tailed by police on motorbikes and asked the driver to make random turns before heading to the U.N.’s human rights office for help. After about five hours, including two at the U.N. office hoping they could get refuge, one of the group was finally arrested outside her Chbar Ampov home, according to a member of the group.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson San Sokseyha said on Tuesday that Eng Malai, also known as So Metta, was arrested based on a court order around 6 p.m. Monday in Chbar Ampov district. The court charged Metta with incitement to cause chaos in society, but he did not know if she had been sent to prison.

National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun also confirmed that Metta was arrested yesterday evening and that the arrest was made based on a court order.

Metta was the fourth member of youth activism group Khmer Thavrak to be arrested since mid-August, with the group participating in a wave of protests to release unionist Rong Chhun. Chhun was arrested for making comments on the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

The Interior Ministry on Monday called the group’s activities illegal.

When San Sreyneat, a 39-year-old member of Khmer Thavrak, boarded a tuk-tuk with Metta and two other activists on Monday afternoon, she found herself followed by plainclothes officers for half a day leading to Metta’s arrest.

“We could not escape,” she told VOD on Tuesday. “If they want to arrest us, we cannot escape no matter where we go.”

Sreyneat said the group of four hired a tuk-tuk about 1:30 p.m., following Monday’s half-day rally, which was monitored by a crowd of authorities double the size of its protesters. Sreyneat’s group wanted to go home to Chbar Ampov from the Japanese and Chinese Friendship bridges, where protesters dispersed after being blocked by authorities, but she said they were afraid police would follow them home.

“I thought of going back home but when they kept following us, we decided not to go home, because we didn’t want them to know my house and come to disturb us at home,” she said.

Sreyneat said they noticed plainclothes officers were following the tuk-tuk, and activists asked the driver to make random turns in an attempt to throw officers off their tail. She said at least one motorbike followed the tuk-tuk for the entire afternoon, but there appeared to be up to six or seven motorbikes at some moments in their ride.

At one point, one of the four passengers urged the tuk-tuk to stop and asked the officers why they were following them.

The group eventually went to the U.N. human rights office in Chamkarmorn district’s Phsar Doeum Thkov commune, where they spent two hours talking with officials, Sreyneat said.

She said they knew they faced arrest upon leaving and the group asked an official for shelter, but the U.N. official denied the request, saying the development organization wouldn’t want to be accused of colluding with Khmer Thavrak or acting outside its role.

“I asked a U.N. officer to help monitor when we are being followed. I told them that I was being harassed and asked whether I could stay there or not, but they said they couldn’t allow that,” she said.

The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment about the events. Earlier on Monday, its human rights office expressed concern over the reported arrests, and said in an email that they were monitoring developments.

Sreyneat said the group left as the office closed, and when they arrived at the house in Prek Pra commune, Metta was immediately arrested by six plainclothes officers.

“I do not know why they arrested only Metta,” she said. “They think Metta is a leader who is inciting or whatever.”

Sreyneat said she was relatively new to the group, initially just supporting Khmer Thavrak from a distance before joining recent protests. She said she was nervous after being followed and then witnessing her colleague’s arrest, but Sreyneat said it was not enough to deter her. 

“I am determined not to panic, and I have persuaded myself to be strong because we have not stolen or robbed anyone. We [campaign] for the nation and only demand justice, freedom and democracy,” she said. “So I have done nothing wrong and if [authorities] think of violating my rights … let them arrest [me] and let them be happy to arrest [me].”

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