Police in Siem Reap yesterday morning temporarily detained at least 50 protesters attempting to hand petitions to visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeking her help settling their various land disputes, according to villagers and a rights group.
Ms Clinton, who arrived in Siem Reap on Saturday evening, toured the temples of the Angkor Archaeological Park yesterday and visited a local NGO, Afesip, that rescues and rehabilitates female victims of sex trafficking.
According to Nou Puthea, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, police blocked three separate groups of protesters attempting to meet Ms Clinton’s entourage in various locations in and around the park, including one group that attempted to enter Angkor Wat itself. He said another group was blocked en route while still 10 km away in Banteay Srei district’s Preah Dak commune. According to Mr Puthea, a total of approximately 50 villagers from both groups were detained for about two hours.
He said the third group of protesters, from Chi Kreng district, was blocked by police before villagers could even leave their district, but he said he did not know of any detentions there. Siem Reap Provincial Court handed down one- and two-year prison terms to eight Chi Kreng villagers in September for trespassing and inciting violence during a 2008 protest against authorities. Villagers have been protesting over a disputed 476 hectares since 2005.
“We just wanted to welcome her visit and hand over our petition to her,” said Che Sambo, who said she was detained along with 50 to 70 fellow villagers from Banteay Srei district’s Tbeng commune fighting a local business over 170 hectares.
“We have already filed our complaint with the village, commune and the district governor, but there is no actions so we want to ask the donor to help this time,” he said.
Authorities, however, did not confirm any detentions.
Chi Kreng district governor Touk Serey Rothmony confirmed that about 10 district police blocked villagers to keep them from disrupting Ms Clinton’s visit.
“We just educated them and let them return home; there was no detention,” he said.
Heritage police chief Tan Chay said he did not know of any detentions because he was in Phnom Penh yesterday and referred questions to his deputy, Chea Sophat, who could not be reached.
Provincial police chief Soath Nordy said he was too busy to comment. But provincial governor Sou Phirin, who accompanied the secretary of state on her tour, denied the detention reports.
US Embassy spokesman Mark Wenig said yesterday he had heard of the protesters but had no details about what happened because he was in Phnom Penh. Mr Wenig could not confirm whether Ms Clinton’s staff had received any of the petitions.
Last week, Phnom Penh residents attempting to deliver a petition to visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefly clashed with police, who chased down and temporarily detained one of their organizers.
The clash came a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen told Mr Ban that he would be closing down the UN’s local human rights office in protest of its outspoken director, a move rights groups fear will silence the government’s remaining critics. In a statement dated Friday, Amnesty International condemned the news and urged Ms Clinton to express public support for the office during her visit.
Ms Clinton is scheduled to meet today with Mr Hun Sen and Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong, but Mr Wenig said he did not know whether Ms Clinton planned to discuss the human rights office. According to the US Secretary of State’s office, Ms Clinton planned to discuss Cambodia’s Lon Nol-era debt to the US, which stood at $445 million at the end of last year. Ms Clinton is also scheduled to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and hold a “town hall” meeting with students at Chaktomuk Conference Hall.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)