battambang town – Sim Chan, 28, was at home at 3 pm on Nov 11 when five armed soldiers knocked on his door, called him by his name and told him to go and get a rice donation from a humanitarian organization.
Sim Chan said he refused to go. Twelve hours later, the same soldiers returned while he and his family were sleeping and arrested him.
He is now one of 15 people from the Malai district in Banteay Meanchey who are awaiting a trial in Battambang town’s jail, charged with participating in a secessionist plot against the government.
An official investigation into what actually happened in Malai is now on hold as the court tries to figure out who has jurisdiction in the case.
Provincial authorities are now waiting for the Ministry of Justice to decide whether the case should be heard in Battambang town or in Banteay Meanchey province, where the group was arrested.
Several prisoners interviewed Tuesday said they knew nothing about a plot to split Malai, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold until the mass defections of 1996, from the central government.
Sim Chan and three other prisoners said that the day before their arrest, more than half their neighbors, including the village chief, went to a bridge 400 meters from the Thai border to receive rice only to find that there was none.
General Sok Pheap, deputy commander of Military Region 5, ordered the crackdown because soldiers under his command were reportedly involved in a secessionist drive. Approximately 80 people in Malai were arrested, 16 of whom were sent to prison in Battambang town where Region 5 has it headquarters, said Nil Nonn, chief of Battambang’s municipal court. One civilian escaped from Battambang jail. The rest of the people arrested in Malai are now free, Nil Nonn said.
The government has said that on Nov 11, Malai’s district office was surrounded by a group of soldiers and civilians and looted. Those arrested also tried to encourage other villagers to secede, court and military officials have said.
Sim Chan and the others arrested said they had heard the district office was attacked, but that they were not involved.
Last week, court officials asked Sim Chan and other prisoners if they were involved with a little-known military group calling themselves the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. The group faxed a statement to news agencies shortly after the arrests claiming that government police had broken up anti-government demonstrations in Malai.
Some prisoners said they had never heard of the Freedom Fighters, which claims to be politically neutral and based on the Thai-Cambodian border. But one prisoner, Prum Visal, 46, said he heard a group of men talking on an ICOM radio identifying themselves as members of the group the week before his arrest.
Prum Visal and other prisoners said they didn’t understand why they were being held.
“I just know only one thing—I was told to go and get rice from a humanitarian organization,” Prum Visal said.
Sim Chan agreed. “I am always thinking in my mind that there is no reason for me to be arrested and keep me here,” he said. “I am happy to die under the court if I made a mistake. Today I am waiting for the court, police and human rights organizations to find justice for me.”