A Cambodian NGO director who on Saturday took about 40 of his primary- and high-school students on a trip to a disputed border area in Svay Rieng province was beaten by Vietnamese civilians and imprisoned overnight, officials said Sunday.
Phen Bunthoeun, the 32-year-old director of two NGOs, C-Rights and the Center for Action Toward Equality, which respectively advocate for children’s rights and educate students planning to work as farmhands in Vietnam, was seized by Vietnamese officials on the border in Kompong Ro district, according to provincial police chief Koeng Khorn.
“The Vietnamese authorities arrested and detained him [on Saturday]. They handed him back to our authorities at 10 a.m. this morning,” Mr. Khorn said Sunday. “He has now been released after having been questioned at our police station.”
The group of 43 people, including dozens of children, had been visiting an area near the site of a clash last month between CNRP lawmaker Real Camerin and Vietnamese civilians. District police chief Sath Samuth said their stated mission was to observe Vietnamese agricultural methods.
He said Vietnamese farmers cultivated the land where Mr. Bunthoeun was beaten and arrested, even though the area has not been properly demarcated and Cambodian authorities believe it lies on the Cambodian side of the border.
“If we consider the border poles, it is our land, and there has been no agreement to cut this land yet. This area has many hectares that are possessed by Vietnam,” Mr. Samuth said.
“There were only about four people who approached that area, but when they saw Vietnamese wave their hands around, they ran back. All the children ran away and he [Mr. Bunthoeun] was alone, and they arrested him,” he said.
“He got injured on his eyebrow and elbow…but he was still strong after he got beaten up,” Mr. Samuth added. “At first, there were only a few, but then there were many people surrounding him, and some were carrying hoes and shovels.”
In a video of Mr. Bunthoeun being interrogated by Cambodian and Vietnamese police, a Vietnamese official, speaking in Khmer, says the NGO director “confessed that he came to check the farmland.”
“There is no farmland for you to see…. This season is not rice season,” the Vietnamese official says to him.
“Why did you go there without asking permission?” a Cambodian official then asks Mr. Bunthoeun, who has bandages on his forehead. “Next time, before you go to the border, you should inform us first.”
“I did not touch anything belonging to them…. I just walked on a path,” Mr. Buntheoun responds.
Contacted by telephone Sunday afternoon, Mr. Buntheoun said he had been transferred to a hospital in Phnom Penh, but was not seriously injured.
He said that at no point during his excursion did he cross into Vietnamese territory.
“We were on our way to see the Vietnamese rice and…to show the students the situation in Cambodia today,” Mr. Bunthoeun said.
“I had been walking alone toward the border, but was stopped by Vietnamese,” he said. “I stopped, and then they ran at me with hoes and shovels and started to beat me. Then the Vietnamese authorities arrived and took me to their station.”
Over the past month, the CNRP has led a campaign to uncover alleged incursions into Cambodian territory by Vietnam, leading the government to send diplomatic missives to Vietnam on three occasions.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Sunday defended Mr. Bunthoeun’s right to travel to the disputed border, and called on the government to prevent such attacks from occurring again. “The government has to make sure that such things will not [be] reproduced in the future,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry declined to comment on the alleged assault and arrest of Mr. Bunthoeun. “I still have not seen a report about this,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)