kandieng district, Pursat province – They did not have any weapons. They did not have jungles in which to hide. And most of the new recruits to the so-called “Empire Movement”—a commando-like unit that officials say was plotting to attack Vietnam and Thailand—did not even know they had been conscripted.
Pursat Provincial Court on Friday charged three Cham Muslim men with plotting to form an illegal armed force aimed at violently taking back Cambodian and Cham territory lost centuries ago to Vietnam and Thailand, court Prosecutor Top Chan Sireyvuth said Sunday.
Officials said Chan Veasna, Tol Mann and Ny Kosal aimed to recruit more than 400 militiamen to bring Kampuchea Krom and the ancient Kingdom of Champa, now both located in Vietnam, under Cambodian rule. The suspects also allegedly planned to take back by force the Thai province of Surin, which was once part of the Khmer Empire, Top Chan Sireyvuth said.
“They wanted to form an Empire Movement to liberate the territory that Cambodia lost long ago,” Sarun Chanthy, deputy provincial police chief, said Thursday. “They wanted to create a commando unit.”
But villagers and rights workers said the case is riddled with inconsistencies and unanswered questions.
Police in Kanhchor commune and relatives of Ny Kosal and Tol Mann in Tbeng Dang Kiep village claimed Friday that the pair only learned upon their arrests that they had been recruited into a nascent guerilla army. The pair believed they had signed up for an NGO building toilets and wells, their relatives said, claiming that the men had fallen victim to an elaborate fraud.
Chan Rean, the wife of Chan Veasna, 40, also proclaimed her husband’s innocence, saying neither Kampuchea Krom nor Champa had ever come up in conversation with her husband during 12 years of marriage.
Deputy National Police Commissioner Sok Phal, who works on counterterrorism and police intelligence, acknowledged Friday that the three suspects probably posed little threat, though he said they had still broken the law.
“They had only 18 people in the illegal force so I think they can’t do anything,” Sok Phal said. “They wanted to help in the liberation of Kampuchea Krom, and this is the territory of Vietnam now…. This activity is illegal.”
Provincial Governor Chhay Sareth also said the men were arrested with good reason.
“This group is very dangerous because they were trying to recruit Muslim people,” he said.
Since their Tuesday arrests, the three have confessed to the charges against them, Top Chan Sireyvuth said.
“They said they wanted to recruit armed forces to take over Kampuchea Krom and Surin,” he said.
The suspects circulated a recruitment document that identified Chan Veasna as a battalion commander and Ny Kosal as a major, though it gave no position for Tol Mann, he said.
A copy of the recruitment form has not been made available to reporters and rights workers, and several villagers claimed that Ny Kosal, 27, and Tol Mann, 35, were not educated enough to read the form in its entirety.
Adding to the mystery, police accept that the 15 other “recruits” to the illegal armed force thought they were signing up for new toilets and wells. Police have chosen to “educate” rather than arrest the 15, Sarun Chanthy said.
According to villagers, the case began when Chan Veasna, a nondescript man aged 40, drove down the tree-lined dirt road into the sleepy Muslim village of Tbeng Dang Kiep on a motorbike, days after the April 1 commune election.
Chan Veasna, manager of the little-known Center for Recovery of Environment Education Kampuchea, approached Ny Kosal and offered to pay him $100 if he would draw up a list of everyone in the village who would like a new well or toilet, said Ny Kosal’s wife Ly Heang, 24.
“[Ny Kosal] thought he was working for an NGO,” she said. “We’ve been cheated and we want justice. The police should release my husband,” she said as dozens of fellow Cham villagers gathered around on Friday afternoon.
Tol Mann’s name also made it onto the recruitment list, though his 65-year-old mother-in-law Ly Ream said he had no idea he was about to be implicated in an illegal armed force.
“My son-in-law knows nothing at all [about the Empire Movement],” she said.
Deputy commune police chief Hom Sophal also said the pair appeared not to know they were recruiting militiamen.
“I don’t know about the leader [Chan Veasna] but the people in the village don’t have much knowledge about this,” he said. “I have no concern [about a Muslim guerilla unit] in this village. It would be impossible to do that,” he added.
Villager Ker Sim, 28, said his name appeared on the list without him being consulted by any of the suspects.
“I don’t know why my name was on the list. I didn’t allow anyone to put it there,” he said.
SRP lawmaker and prominent Cham Muslim Ahmad Yahya said he was skeptical about the whole affair.
“Frankly [speaking] with you, I don’t believe in this case. It looks like it’s set up,” he said. “It’s not normal for Chams to [act] like this.”
The suspects may have been framed, he said, though he declined to speculate on who might have wished to do so.
“In Cambodia, if they want to target someone they make a problem…but we don’t want to point the finger,” he said.
CPP commune councilor Tam Mith, however, said he was satisfied that Tol Mann and Ny Kosal were guilty.
Tam Mith said Tol Mann is a member of Funcinpec, while Ny Kosal belongs to the SRP. The pair are not being persecuted for their political beliefs, he said, adding that police will arrest anyone who breaks the law regardless of their political affiliations.
“If they planned to form an NGO, they should have informed the local authorities,” Tam Mith said, as an official in muddy green trousers and a Trilby hat stood behind him scribbling down notes while journalists asked questions.
Ny Kosal and Tol Mann’s political affiliations could not be independently confirmed.
The pair’s connection to Chan Veasna is also unclear, as is Chan Veasna’s very identity.
Police say Chan Veasna is a Muslim, though his wife Chan Rean, 39, said he never informed her of this.
“He has many names. Sometimes he calls himself Dara Veasna, sometimes Veasna Dara, and sometimes Chan Dara,” said Puth Sambath, provincial investigator for local rights group Adhoc. Chan Veasna’s NGO business card offers a fourth possibility: Chan Darahveager.
According to documents provided by his wife, Chan Veasna went to the US as a refugee around 1976, where he lived as a resident alien until the mid-1990s, working for a string of private companies. In one document, he identifies himself as “Dr Veasna.”
Asked about Chan Veasna and the case on Sunday, US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said he did not have enough information to comment.
In the mid-1990s, Chan Veasna returned to Cambodia penniless, Chan Rean said. The couple married soon after and moved to Pursat in the years that followed, establishing the NGO Creek with support from an unidentified Australian benefactor who gave them periodic donations of $1,500, she said.
But Creek’s finances are as mysterious as the NGO’s manager.
At the NGO’s humble stilt-house office in Banteay Dei commune, Chan Rean said the couple drew a monthly salary of $35, and that when her husband was arrested, he had only $200 to his name.
“He never talked about armies, about Thailand or Vietnam,” she said. “I don’t believe he wanted to [attack Vietnam]. He didn’t have enough funds to secure those armed forces.”
However, handwritten financial statements for the NGO appear to show occasional hundred-thousand dollar sums passing through Creek’s accounts last year.
Chan Rean said these figures are incorrect. A man named Chan Vorn kept the books for the NGO, but suddenly left three months ago because his mother was sick, she said. Chan Vorn has not been seen since.
Chan Rean also believes her husband has been framed, though she does not know by whom. She expressed concern that police may be pressuring Chan Veasna to confess to something he has not done in return for a promise to free him on bail. She is also concerned that she may now be arrested herself.
Adhoc has so far been allowed to photograph the suspects at court, but not to speak to them, Puth Sambath said.
“We don’t know whether they may have been forced to confess or threatened to confess,” he said. “Unless we talk to the suspects we can’t draw a conclusion.”
Though the case remains shrouded in confusion, rights workers and villagers said there is little chance of a Muslim militia forming in Pursat.
“It’s impossible since Pursat is located in the center of the country. It’s not located near the Thai and Vietnamese borders and there’s no place to hide,” said Nhoung Samoeurn, a Pursat prison researcher for local rights group Licadho.
“That community makes a living by farming, making sugar palm juice and fishing. They don’t even have a slaughter house for cows,” he said.
Tbeng Dang Kiep villager Gip Tem, 45, said that local Muslims also lack a motive to form an armed force and attack neighboring countries.
“Although we’re Muslims we’re Cambodian citizens. You see our rice fields-we don’t use all the vacant land. Why would we want more?” he said.
(Reporting by Yun Samean, William Shaw and Thet Sambath)