Phen Bunthoeun, the NGO director who was arrested and detained overnight by Vietnamese authorities for leading about 40 students to visit a disputed border area in Svay Rieng province on Saturday, admitted Monday that he had gone there to inspect alleged border violations.
Mr. Bunthoeun, who heads two small NGOs that advocate for children’s rights and educate students planning to work on Vietnamese farms, claimed after his release Sunday that he was beaten and arrested after leading a trip to see Vietnamese rice and the “situation” at the border.
On Monday, he continued to deny crossing into Vietnam, but defended his trip as a necessary and educational experience for primary-and high-school students whose country’s territory is being encroached upon.
“They started to know about their territory after going there and have become concerned about it and regret [the situation], and now they will study harder and want to know about it,” Mr. Bunthoeun said.
“When I was walking with them, some of them told me that this or that farm belonged to their parents, and they used to farm the land before renting it to the Vietnamese,” he added, reiterating that he had not reached the border.
Local officials said on Sunday that they also believed Mr. Bunthoeun had not crossed into Vietnam, but provincial governor Chieng Am on Monday disputed such claims.
“When they arrived at the area of border marker 202, Phen Bunthoeun had crossed about 150 meters into Vietnamese territory, and the Vietnamese authorities arrested him and sent him to the station of the border soldiers,” Mr. Am wrote in a letter to Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
Mr. Bunthoeun on Monday also defended taking the students, aged between 7 and 16 years old, to an area with overlapping Cambodian and Vietnamese claims to the land.
“Some people might view it as dangerous to take them, but we ask: ‘When should they understand this issue?’ and when we did [go there], we thought we were careful and we did not allow anyone to go close to it,” he said.