A group of 73 luckless laborers somehow triggered police suspicions Wednesday night and were arrested as they gathered near the Victory Long Age shoe factory in Dangkao district.
A government spokesman said an investigation was still under way, but that many of the people were probably innocent and would be released. He said police suspected the group to be smugglers.
A union representative said he was told that police thought the workers were members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, the rebel group that has threatened to attack the government this month. A CFF attack in Phnom Penh last November left at least four people dead.
The recent threats have prompted a government crackdown on the US-based group, leading to nearly two dozen arrests over the past month. At least one of those arrested is a Cambodian-American, who is still in custody.
A representative of the Victory Long Age shoe factory said none of the people arrested work at the factory, which employs 1,800 laborers.
“They were just workers, but not from the factory,” said Wang Hsin, president of the Shoe Industrial Association.
He said the workers may have been assembling for a construction project to rebuild an old factory that was supposed to begin next week. He said he didn’t know who hired the workers, or why they were assembled in front of the Victory Long Age factory.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanarith said close to 80 people were meeting when police found them. After questioning, many of the people were found to be innocent, he said.
“Many of them are innocent people. Many have been released and some more will be released,” he said.
Sok Saroeun, prosecutor of the city court, said he knew nothing about the arrests and said no warrant had been issued for the arrests.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng mentioned factory worker protests as a national security concern in a speech last week during a police promotion ceremony. He listed the workers movement, along with kidnapping, drugs and human trafficking, as threats “to overthrow and reduce the influence of the legal government.”
Chhuob Sok Heng, deputy police chief of Dangkao district, said some 63 men and 10 women were arrested at about 8 pm Wednesday as they gathered in Samroang Krom commune.
“They were gathering at night. That’s why authorities arrested them on suspicion they were about to attempt something bad. There is no arrest warrant to detain these suspects,” he said.
He also said they were mostly construction workers preparing to build a shoe factory called Long Age.
All of them will be released if the authorities do not find any problems during questioning, Chhuob Sok Heng said.
Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said on Thursday that he could not get access to the suspects because the authorities thought they were members of the CFF.
“I do not believe those people are CFF members,” he said. “They are looking for a job.”