The Interior Ministry impounded a vehicle Monday from Cambodia’s Office of the Personal Representative of Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, accusing its three passengers of leading crowds of opposition protesters, a police spokesman said.
“It seems that this vehicle was encouraging a motorcade of anarchic protesters to protest against the legal government,” said Khieu Sopheak, the spokesperson for the Interior Ministry.
Simon Hermes, a long-term monitor for the UN’s office, and two Khmer staff not identified, were held for questioning and then released Monday without charges, said Khieu Sopheak. The vehicle remained impounded late Monday and will be released pending an official request from the UN, Khieu Sopheak said.
The incident tops off several days of growing tension between the government and UN over the organization’s involvement as monitors of street protests.
Government officials claim some of the UN’s monitors—in particular those from the UN human rights office—have been directly or indirectly encouraging illegal protests against the government. UN officials said Monday they have never stepped outside their neutral role as monitors.
“Under no circumstances are we leading demonstrations,” said Rosemary McCreery, the director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “In some cases we have to position ourselves in front of demonstrators to be able to observe properly and to do what we can to prevent confrontation between opposing groups of protesters or between groups of demonstrators and the authorities.”
There was no official comment Monday from the secretary-general’s office.
The trouble Monday occurred after UN officials tried to put a severely beaten protester into Hermes’ UN vehicle at around 10:30 am in western Phnom Penh.
Police had pulled the man off his motorbike and beat him repeatedly after finding a bag of marbles and a slingshot nearby.
The protester was one of about 1,000 marching down Mao Tse-Tung Boulevard in front of the Intercontinental Hotel.
The three workers from the UN’s office of the personal representative attempted to take the beaten man for medical treatment but police stopped them. Police and UN officials had a heated argument for about 30 minutes before the UN was permitted to leave. Military police and the specially trained Flying Tiger police escorted the UN land cruiser to a hospital and then impounded the vehicle inside the Ministry of Interior compound.
Statements from the three UN workers “appeared to show that they admitted to leading the protests against the government,” Khieu Sopheak said.
The accusation goes to the heart of the government’s dispute with the UN. White UN land cruisers have been seen at the front of large student demonstrations and blue-capped monitors have been seen on foot or in their cars at the city’s spontaneous street demonstrations—a methodology rights workers have said is necessary in order to fulfill their roles as observers and monitors.
UN monitors have been observing and monitoring protests since the beginning of the pro-opposition rallies several weeks ago, a human rights worker said. Monitors have three objectives: to observe whether people’s rights are being upheld, to help ensure demonstrations are peaceful and help prevent violence from any quarter, McCreery said.
But how a few—and not all—of the UN monitors have been implementing this mandate raises some serious questions about the organizations’ neutrality, government officials alleged.
In letter to The Cambodia Daily, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith noted that demonstration leaders saw UN monitors as a “direct support for their cause.” The spokesman said the misleading statements should have been “corrected or clarified by UN officials.”
Both the government and UN agencies agree the UN is needed to help prevent outbreaks of violence. The Interior Ministry called the UN human rights center Sunday to find out if monitors would be present at huge CPP rallies; five vehicles were present.
On-duty police have been recording the identification numbers of UN vehicles since students began protesting at the Ministry of Information last week, Khieu Sopheak said. “Maybe one or two” of the vehicles have been seen regularly “leading groups of protesters,” Khieu Sopheak said.
“We have recognized the number of [the impounded] vehicle was [one] leading in front of protests,” Khieu Sopheak said.
At the Sunday protests, loudspeakers on top of trucks and cyclos shouted in favor of the CPP and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and lambasted the UN.
Police and “supporters of the July elections” have heard Cambodians on the UN rights centers’ radio frequency calling for Hun Sen to step down and calling him a “yuon puppet,” Khieu Sopheak said. Yuon is a derogatory term for Vietnamese.
But, McCreery flatly denied the charge, adding the ICOM frequency human rights monitors use is not secure and is often broken into by unknown people, who speak unprofessionally.
“We have had serious problems with people infiltrating our radio communications,” McCreery said. “We are quite unable to control what is said on that frequency.” Some of the office’s staff received anonymous threats over their own frequency Sunday, McCreery said.
The government has criticized the UN human rights office for being biased before and questioned whether it would renew the office’s term earlier this year.
The government did renew the office’s term, which now expires in March 2000.
UN Personal Representative Lakhan Mehrotra’s office has also become the recent target of attacks in CPP newspapers, especially since opposition leader Sam Rainsy essentially moved into the Sofitel Hotel Cambodiana office last week seeking UN protection.
“This damages the UN image,” Khieu Sopheak said. “We highly appreciate the role of Lakhan Mehrotra to solve the ongoing Cambodian crisis, but some of the workers have misused the vehicles to show their non-neutrality.”
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Marc Levy)