Prime Minister Hun Sen has turned down a request by King Norodom Sihanouk to release students and others arrested following the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh.
The premier rejected King Sihanouk’s request on Thursday, one of several occasions in which the Hun Sen-led government has declined to fulfill the wishes of Cambodia’s constitutional monarch. However, King Sihanouk graciously accepted the rejection of his release plea in a reply letter to Hun Sen on Friday.
In a letter sent to media outlets on Thursday, King Sihanouk said he did not believe the students detained following the riots were capable of executing the well-organized night of violence and destruction that engulfed Phnom Penh.
“Among the people who were arrested and detained, there are some… [small] and poor people, who I cannot believe had the capacity to organize the technical operation to destroy all the Thai properties,” the King said in the letter.
“I cannot believe that the student named Ken Sara, and the other grandsons and students arrested and detained were the cruel people who destroyed the property of the respectful Thai nationals,” the King added.
“I am a reigning King, but I do not rule. However, I have an obligation to request the government—of which Samdech Hun Sen is the noble leader—national police, national court who love justice, please give freedom to those students.”
The government has blamed unnamed “political extremists” for orchestrating the anti-Thai riots and claims police and military police were overwhelmed by the rioters. More recently, police officials said they declined to confront the rioters, because using violence to stop the looting would have inflamed the situation.
The suspect with the highest profile, Ken Sara, a fourth-year law student and university activist, was arrested on Feb 6 for allegedly inciting racism, violence and protesting without permission.
Ken Sara’s detention has been condemned by his colleagues in the Students Movement For Democracy, who allege he was arrested to prevent him from competing against a powerful police official in an election for the presidency of the student’s association at the Faculty of Law and Economics.
Faculty officials claim Ken Sara was not a final candidate for the election.
Hun Sen rejected King Sihanouk’s request for the students’ freedom on Thursday on the grounds that fulfilling such a request could compromise Cambodia’s judicial process.
“I would like to follow the royal idea of Your Majesty…. But I have a very serious concern that this charity act will make the courts face difficulties in implements its duty,” Hun Sen said.
A total of 175 suspects were arrested following the riots. However, criminal charges have only been brought against 60 people, including Ken Sara, Hun Sen said.
“Ken Sara was arrested by authorities with a clear warrant from the court. So, I believe that the authorities did not arrest him illegally,” said Hun Sen.
The premier also hinted that King Sihanouk had been duped by “irresponsible” people into supporting the release of the student prisoners.
“Some people have no responsibility and dare to say wrongly… and dare to do business on the charity of the very respectful King,” Hun Sen added.
Um Sam An, secretary-general of the Student Movement for Democracy, said on Friday demonstrations will be held next week demanding the students’ release. The King also supported the prisoners’ release, said Um Sam An.
“What we do is to support the royal idea of the King,” Um Sam An said, adding that Hun Sen should also respect the wishes of the Head of State.
“The King is the Head of State and is respected by the people nationwide,” Um Sam An said. “Hun Sen is challenging the King.”
Outspoken Funcinpec Lawmaker Keo Remy said on Friday that Hun Sen should reconsider the King’s request.
“By the national Constitution…. The king has [the power] to reduce the terms of imprisonment and release prisoners,” Keo Remy said.
On Friday evening, national television TVK broadcast a unique hourlong singing performance by King Sihanouk accompanied by his half-brother Prince Norodom Sirivudh on electric guitar, Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuth on saxophone and several other famous musicians.
Though 80 years old and suffering from several illnesses, a sprightly and animated King Sihanouk belted out an entertaining, hour of classic romantic tunes in French, English and Spanish.
TVK officials said the rare broadcast of the performance was requested by the King in celebration of the 2003 New Year.
(Additional reporting Kevin Doyle)