Police shut down a prominent monk’s event to distribute T-shirts urging the protection of the Prey Lang forest at a guesthouse in Preah Vihear province on Friday morning, citing the organizer’s failure to request permission for the gathering.
But Buntenh, president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said he was forced to lock himself in a room after authorities tried to arrest him, while a police official, a rights worker and the guesthouse owner said no attempt was made to apprehend the monk.
According But Buntenh, a group of monks and environmental activists met at the M’lop Tasek Guesthouse in Preah Vihear City at about 7:30 a.m. to help him hand out T-shirts bearing the words “Together, We Protect Prey Lang.”
Shortly after the event started, about 20 provincial police officers entered the building, the monk said.
“The police said, ‘Whatever you do, you have to ask permission first,’” he said. “I told them that I did not do that because there is no law saying so.”
But Buntenh said that when he ignored the officers and continued passing out T-shirts, an argument ensued and he got into his car to return to Phnom Penh. But two officers pulled him from the vehicle before he could start the engine, he said.
“Then I said, ‘Why do you arrest me? Because I haven’t done anything wrong.’ Police said they were not arresting me, but just taking me to the police station,” he said. “Then I said I will not go to the police station. Immediately after they released my hand, I ran into the guesthouse room.”
Once locked in the room, But Buntenh said he stayed there for two hours while other activists negotiated with the police. He said he exited the room at 9:40 a.m. after receiving assurances that he would not be detained.
The situation quickly deescalated, he said, and the officers left the guesthouse after offering their support to the activists’ cause and taking some T-shirts, he said.
“Finally, the police requested we give them some T-shirts, so I gave those T-shirts to the police,” he said. “No problem.”
Deputy provincial police chief Keo Chamroeun said that at no point did his officers attempt to arrest But Buntenh or anyone else.
“We just went there to ask why the monks were distributing T-shirts to the people without asking permission from authorities,” he said. “Monks should hold activities at the right place, at the right time.”
Lor Chann, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, also said police did not attempt to arrest But Buntenh, but admitted that he did not witness the initial confrontation, having arrived at the guesthouse at about 9 a.m., when the monks and activists were dispersing.
“The police arrived at the guesthouse just before 8 a.m. and the monks left at about 9 a.m.,” he said, adding that he did not know whether But Buntenh locked himself in a room, as the monk claimed.
Like Mr. Chamroeun and Mr. Chann, the owner of the M’lop Tasek Guesthouse, Khim Pich, said police did not attempt to arrest But Buntenh, but that the monk did lock himself in a room following a heated exchange with police, but only for about 20 minutes.