‘Secession’ Leader Says He Will Return to Cambodia, Stage Protest

The convicted ringleader of a so-called secessionist movement in May in Kratie province, who is currently in self-imposed exile to avoid a 30-year prison sentence, has said that he will soon return to Cambodia to organize a large-scale demonstration against the government.

Bun Ratha—who was sentenced in absentia during a joint trial with popular radio station owner Mam Sonando in October —fled to Thailand after government security forces violently evicted hundreds of families living in Kratie’s Broma village, ostensibly to quell a rural uprising. Although he never visited Broma, Mr. Sonando is currently serving a 20-year jail sentence for his role as the movement’s figurehead.

“I’m Khmer. I will not abandon the Cambodian land, which is why I am planning to come back to Cambodia soon,” Mr. Ratha said by telephone from an undisclosed location overseas on Friday. “I have a plan already.”

Mr. Ratha said that families evicted from Broma village were already planning to stage a protest with him. “They are still hot-tempered, because they lost their land, money, motorbikes, houses and so on. They are planning to stage a protest with me,” he said.

“Whenever I am able to gather everyone, we will unite to stage a protest in Phnom Penh to respond to the government’s claim that we are secessionists,” he continued. “Everything was set up by the government to arrest Mam Sonando and other innocent people.”

Asked what action the government would take if Mr. Ratha returned to Cambodia, Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said: “He should call his lawyer to protect himself.”

“No one asked him to go out [of the country] and no one asked him to come back…. It’s up to him,” Lt. Gen. Sopheak added.

Mr. Ratha also claimed on Friday that two other men accused of leading the alleged insurrection, Ma Chhang and Khat Saroeun, had urged him to turn himself in to the government, confess to his role in the “secessionist” plot and testify against Mr. Sonando—all to avoid going to prison.

Mr. Ratha said that after fleeing to Thailand in May, he was joined by Mr. Chhang and his family in early July. Less than two weeks later, Mr. Saroeun called and attempted to persuade the fugitives to return to Cambodia, saying the government had offered all three men amnesty, as well as motorbikes, new homes and 4 million riel, or about $1,000 each, Mr. Ratha said.

Residents in Broma and local officials have said that both Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun received cash, building materials and other “donations” upon returning to the village in August. Mr. Chhang and Mr. Saroeun, along with five other defendants who testified against Mr. Sonando in October, had their sentences suspended and were freed by the court.

Although he himself refused, Mr. Ratha said, Mr. Chhang agreed to return to Cambodia.

“I didn’t stop him, and Ma Chhang also asked me to come back to my country to confess…. But I refused, because I have done nothing wrong,” Mr. Ratha said.

“Both Ma Chhang and Khat Saroeun tried to persuade me that I would not be found guilty, and had no need to worry, because of our statements against Sonando had already been prepared,” he said.

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