Squatters Get Caught Up in Rebel Sweep

People living in a squatter village west of the Phnom Penh railway station complained Thursday that police had arrested them  without cause in the wake of last week’s armed rebellion.

“They accused me of being a terrorist,” said Som Net, a 23-year-old mechanic who claims he was asleep above the garage where he works when he was rousted out of his mosquito net about 10:30 pm Tuesday. “They said they’d shoot me dead.”

Som Net and others who live in the ramshackle buildings clustered on land belonging to Royal Cambodian Railways said they didn’t know what the police were talking about.

And though all 65 of those arrested Tuesday night were apparently released within 36 hours, some said they had to buy their way out.

“The police did not demand money, but they said to us, ‘You know, I work hard for you, so you should pay,’” said Prum Sarean, 33, who shelled out $15 to spring three of her tenants.

“When the police say that, we understand that they want money,” she said, adding that the men were quiet workers.

Police said they swept through the neighborhood because a group of the alleged rebels attacked the train station during last Friday’s uprising, stealing 14 weapons from the station armory.

Sokhum Pheakawon Mony, chief of the railway station, said the alleged terrorists fled into the squatter village with the weapons.

Police from the Tuol Kork district poured through the village Tuesday night, arresting anyone who was new to the area or who didn’t have proper papers, said Kim Hourn, district police chief.

“We freed them [Thursday] after we could not find evidence that they were involved with the armed men,” he said.

He denied that his men shook down the villagers, saying they simply collected their names, gave them a lecture on public safety and gave them food and water.

Police did not demand money, he said, “because [the suspects]  are very poor people.” He said the sweep was necessary to restore public order in the wake of the violence.

Those detained, however, said there seemed to be little explanation for the arrests. Police asked many of those arrested if they were members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, the anti-government group blamed for the attack.

Others were asked if they were connected to Khmer Serey, a similar anti-government group that apparently had nothing to do with the events Friday. Still others were just asked to identify themselves.

Sun Heng, 32, said he was not a newcomer to the neighborhood. “I’ve lived here for 10 years, and I never had a problem before,” he said, whittling a sling-shot to use against the rats who patrol the neighborhood at night.

“They said I hadn’t registered with the commune chief. They asked us about Khmer Serey. I said, ‘We are Khmer, what does serey [free] mean?’’’

People living in shanties along the railroad tracks were the first to be picked up, as police went door-to-door about 8 pm, demanding to see identification.

By 10:30 pm, police were sweeping along Street 608, loading suspects into trucks and corralling them at the police station. Some were videotaped, said mechanic Yim Sophea, 25.

He has lived in the neighborhood for six years, and can’t quite believe police thought he might be a terrorist. “I never heard of the CFF, or the Khmer Serey,” he said.

 

 

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