Prominent activist monk But Buntenh, head of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, was arrested in Preah Vihear province on Thursday, along with another monk and three NGO staffers who had traveled to the province to support a group of ethnic Kuoy villagers protesting the loss of their farmland.
Speaking from the Tbeng Meanchey district police station Thursday evening, But Buntenh confirmed that he had been arrested by police and detained at around 3:30 p.m. while returning from a peaceful protest in Brameru commune. Also arrested were fellow monk Bun Theng and Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) staffers Bo Pov, Em Sarom and Chin Sambou.
“I am arrested at Preah Vihear’s Tbeng Meanchey district now, but I don’t mind whatever happens. I am happy to sacrifice my life for my people,” But Buntenh said by telephone.
Late last night, the two monks were released to a nearby pagoda to sleep for the night, but it remained unclear whether they would be allowed to go free in the morning. The CLEC staffers were reportedly transferred to the provincial police headquarters.
But Buntenh said that after Thursday’s protest, about 20 military police had surrounded his group and marched them to police headquarters at gunpoint without telling them why.
“They turned the gun on me and took me to the police office and tried to ask me why I came here and the reason I am here,” he said. “I do not know why, but if the police are serving the people they should not detain me, because I did nothing wrong and only protested for the land of the community.”
The activist monk complained that police had threatened him and forced him to open his robe and urinate in front of them rather than letting him use a restroom privately.
CLEC Executive Director Yeng Virak, who said that a lawyer was on the way to Preah Vihear, confirmed the arrests.
“They arrested But Buntenh and my colleagues…after they went to see a community event,” he said.
“I don’t want to speculate, but I don’t think they did any harm and surely did not do anything against the law,” he added. “I don’t think they did anything outside the law, and so there is no reason to detain them. It’s really intimidation.”
Tbeng Meanchey district governor Pang Yat denied that the five men had been arrested, claiming instead that they had merely been “invited” to the police station for questioning about why they had attended the protest.
“The monks did not have land here, so why did the monks come to protest?” he asked, declining to comment further.
Villagers said they had staged the demonstration over 5,000 hectares of disputed land they accuse a Chinese company, Lan Feng, of stealing from them and illegally clearing.
Community member Phann Sokhet, 25, said that authorities surrounded the group of around 100 villagers shortly after they arrived to protest at the site of the dispute.
“At that time, But Buntenh and Bun Theng said to the people, ‘It’s good that the people protest against the company and authorities for the right to occupy your land,’” he said. “After finishing the meeting, the monks and activists left the disputed land and along the way police arrested them at around 3:30 p.m.”
Provincial police chief Sy Kiri and deputy provincial police chief Keo Chamroeun both declined to comment on the detentions of the monks and NGO staff.
Late Thursday, But Buntenh said he and Bun Theng had been released for the night to sleep in Chayaproek pagoda, the home of Preah Vihear’s chief monk. He said he did not know if they would be free to leave this morning, and that the three CLEC staffers remained detained.
“They released us, but they did not allow us to accompany each other,” he said, referring to the NGO staff members. “Let’s see. Things will change soon because men’s minds always change.”
But Buntenh has taken on an increasingly high profile over the past few months, organizing and fronting a number of protests against the ruling CPP.
In December, he led a group of activist monks to march outside Chaktomuk Theater, where a nationwide conference of monks was taking place, to protest the theft of the nation’s only relics of the Buddha, which he attributed to government corruption. Last week, his network of monks joined protesters from the Boeng Kak lake community to burn tires in front of City Hall, blockading officials inside and leading to a brief clash with police.
He said last night that he did not fear being defrocked, which has happened to other Cambodian monks who ventured into politics.
“Impossible,” he said. “They cannot say that word [defrock] to me, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
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