Police arrested three Muslim men on Tuesday evening for allegedly plotting to use military force to recover Cambodian and Cham territory lost centuries ago to Vietnam, officials said Thursday.
Pursat provincial police seized the three men in Kandieng district after discovering a list of 15 Muslims who had signed up for a commando-like unit called the “Empire Movement,” said Sarun Chanthy, deputy provincial police chief.
The suspects from Banteay Dei commune had hoped to rally a further 400 militants to take up arms to violently restore Kampuchea Krom to Cambodian rule and take over what was once the kingdom of Champa, he said.
“They wanted to form an Empire Movement to liberate the territory that Cambodia lost long ago,” Sarun Chanthy claimed. “They wanted to create a commando unit,” he added.
Sarun Chanthy said the men concealed their ambitions behind the guise of a local NGO known as the Cambodian Environment Development and Restoration Organization.
The suspects did not have any weapons, though they planned to purchase them, he maintained.
Sarun Chanthy identified the suspects as the NGO’s president Chan Daraveasna, and staffers Ny Kosal and Tol Mann. The three are being held at the provincial prison.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said authorities are investigating whether the men were part of a bigger militant network.
“We want to discover whether their network is big or small,” he said, adding the government does not yet have much information on the case.
“We do not yet know whether we will try them in the civilian court or the Military Court,” he added.
Deputy National Police Commissioner Sok Phal said he knew nothing about the case, and referred questions to Pursat police. Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak also said he knew nothing about the arrests.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said the embassy did not have enough information to comment. The US has effusively praised the Cambodian police force’s anti-terrorism efforts and its cooperation in the so-called war on terrorism.
Ahmad Yahya, SRP parliamentarian and prominent member of the Cham Muslim community, said it was absurd to believe a movement was being established to regain Champa.
“I don’t believe it. I know our Cham people in Cambodia and overseas and there is no movement,” he said.
“There is someone trying to create a problem, create a story. Where there is a situation like this we have to find out who is behind it,” he added. “If it is a fake story they should be punished.”
Ahmad Yahya said he has spoken by telephone with sources in Pursat who have reported that villagers were approached recently by a man claiming to be a labor recruiter.
Local men signed up for jobs, not for armed struggle, the sources reported, Ahmad Yahya said.
The sources also reported that others who also thumbprinted the labor recruiter’s documents, which they probably couldn’t read because of illiteracy, have now fled into the forest for fear of being arrested, he added.
According to Sarun Chanthy, the suspects tricked 15 local villagers into signing up for the commando unit by offering to dig them water wells.
Police “educated” the 15 rather than arresting them because they were tricked into signing up and were unaware of the suspect’s military designs, he said.
Ly Heang, the 24-year-old wife of suspect Ny Kosal, protested her husband’s innocence.
“[Ny Kosal] does not have any weapons,” she said, adding that she has asked local rights group Adhoc to ask the police to release her husband.
Puth Sambath, provincial coordinator for Adhoc, said he has not been allowed to meet the suspects, though police have informed him that they confessed.
On several occasions, rights workers have questioned allegations of terrorism leveled by Cambodian authorities.
Six men were arrested in November on suspicion of plotting to bomb the Water Festival, though details of the plot were never fully explained to the public. The men’s lawyer claimed they were tortured into confessing, a charge that the police deny.
After the Cambodian Freedom Fighters attacked government installations in Phnom Penh in 2000, more than 100 people were arrested over their links to the CFF.
When they eventually appeared in court, many of the alleged CFF suspects said they had signed up as members of a local NGO, which police said was a front for CFF recruitment, and not an anti-government group.
Khieu Kanharith said the men were arrested with good reason, and that the case is not an attempt by the government to flex its anti-terrorist muscle.
“If we arrested them to show off we would hold a press conference,” he said.
“We are working quietly.”