Preah Vihear provincial police on Friday set free two prominent activist monks and three NGO workers who had been detained after joining ethnic Kuoy villagers in a land eviction protest in Tbeng Meanchey district.
The three staffers from the Phnom Penh-based Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), as well as activist monks But Buntenh and But Theng, were freed Friday morning after spending a night detained by police.
The group was detained in the Tbeng Meanchey district police station on Thursday after having been escorted at gunpoint by 20 military police officers from the housing eviction protest, But Buntenh said.
The monks had been allowed to spend the night at a pagoda, though But Buntenh said that authorities on Friday morning had tried to defrock him from the monkhood before freeing him.
“A police officer told me that they received orders from a superior to defrock me and the other monk, but they failed to do so since there were more than 100 villagers who surrounded the pagoda to demand our release,” he said.
Ming Saing, an ethnic Kuoy woman involved in the land dispute, said that villagers had divided into two groups on Friday morning to “guard” the monks at the pagoda and the CLEC staff at the provincial police station.
“We could not allow the authorities to harm them since they had come here to help the villagers who have lost their farmland to this private company,” she said.
Villagers accuse Lan Feng Company, a Chinese sugar plantation firm, of grabbing and illegally clearing 5,000 hectares of their communal farmland.
Provincial police chief Sy Kiri and his deputy, Keo Chamroeun, both declined to comment on the reasons for detaining the five in the first place and then setting them free.
CLEC Director Yeng Virak said that his three staff had been accused by authorities of trespassing onto the disputed land and confirmed they were freed on Friday.
Tbeng Meanchey district governor Pang Yat confirmed that the five had been let go, but also denied that they had ever been forcibly held by police.
“They were never under detention. After they gave information about their involvement, they were freed,” he claimed.
Mr. Yat added that authorities had asked the Kuoy villagers to send representatives to a Monday meeting with the provincial governor to discuss the land dispute.