An activist with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) died Wednesday while being taken into custody by authorities for “plotting a coup” in connection with the return of acting party president Sam Rainsy from exile, according to a family member.
Sam Bopha, 50, from Svay Rieng province had been involved in an argument with her husband after his father—a former elected official with the CNRP—“confessed” to authorities about Sam Rainsy’s planned return on Nov. 9, which the opposition has said is part of a bid to “restore democracy” in Cambodia.
Sam Bopha’s father-in-law filed a domestic abuse complaint against her with the police, who came to detain her at her home on Wednesday, but she was killed after she fell from an officer’s motorbike en route to the local station, her brother Sam Dina told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Sam Dina said that his sister’s arrest appeared “politically motivated” because of the large police response to a “domestic abuse” situation.
He said that police ignored his sister’s pleas that she was sick, and that her health condition likely led to her falling from the motorbike. She sustained serious injuries in the fall and died before reaching a local hospital.
“My sister told the police she was sick, but they were determined to take her—it was very painful to watch,” he said, calling for justice.
RFA was unable to reach the local police for comment on the incident, which was recorded on video by bystanders and published on Facebook.
Nuth Bopeinaroth, the provincial coordinator of rights group Licadho, said that within the last few days many CNRP activists have been made to “confess” to the police about a coup being orchestrated by Sam Rainsy, and vowed to investigate Wednesday’s incident.
New arrests and charges
Sam Bopha’s death comes as authorities in Cambodia continued a crackdown on activists and others who have voiced support for Sam Rainsy’s return, arresting one and charging a dozen others.
Police in Pursat province took former CNRP elected official Sorn Samey into custody late on Wednesday evening while he was inspecting a parcel of land he intended to purchase, his son Sorn Phyrun told RFA, adding that he was never informed of the reason for his arrest.
“My aunt said that my father was arrested without a warrant,” Sorn Phyrun said. “He was never involved in any political activities.”
Meanwhile, the chief prosecutor of Kampong Speu Province charged 11 CNRP activists with “plotting a coup” after they used Facebook to “incite people” to join in Sam Rainsy’s return and issued a warrant for their arrest, according to a statement released by the court.
Kung Mach, one of the 11 charged, called the warrant “a threat” that was issued illegally.
“This warrant has cheapened the value of the court—it is beyond belief,” she said, adding that she is innocent of the charges against her.
Also on Wednesday, the Pailin Provincial Court charged activist Suor Sem with “plotting a coup” for “gathering activists to topple the government,” forcing her into hiding.
Speaking from a safe location, Suor Sem told RFA that he had done nothing to warrant the charges.
“I have not done anything wrong that would lead to charges of treason—they are just looking to blame me,” she said.
The new arrests and charges follow reports that multiple CNRP activists have fled Oddar Meanchey province in recent days amid a campaign by local authorities to coerce them into “confessing” that Sam Rainsy is masterminding a coup d’etat.
Nheang Sarom, the former elected CNRP councilor of Oddar Meanchey’s Samrong district, told RFA on Tuesday that at the end of last week the district governor had led a group of local authorities door to door, urging activists to confess that the opposition party is involved in a plot of treason in exchange for a “pardon,” but the activists refused and have since fled the area.
“The local authorities told me that if I confess, the court will forgive me, but I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
“We are not traitors … who have sold the country, as they alleged.”
Activist Sok Vel said that he also left his home and has gone into hiding because he had been approached about a confession “multiple times” by local authorities.
“They asked me to confess and said that no one will harm me [if I do so],” he said.
“They are afraid that I am ‘gathering forces’ to welcome Sam Rainsy. I didn’t make any confessions and I refuse to fall into their trap.”
RFA was unable to reach deputy provincial governor Vat Paranin for comment on Tuesday.
Analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA that the confessions were forced and part of a bid by the government “to stop Sam Rainsy’s return.”
The Ministry of Interior issued a directive on Wednesday ordering provincial authorities to prepare security forces under their jurisdiction to monitor the public and crack down on Sam Rainsy’s supporters around the date of his planned return.
“Provincial governors must maintain constant pressure in early November … They need to lead and coordinate forces to prevent crimes and crack down on offenses,” Interior Minister Sar Kheng wrote in the directive.
“I advise all forces to monitor illegal rebel groups that attempt to overthrow the government. [Authorities] should advise the people to avoid any plot of a coup.”
Korn Savang, a monitoring coordinator with election watchdog COMFREL, told RFA that the new surveillance measures will intimidate the people and restrict their freedom to gather and engage in political activities.
“This is a worrisome situation that creates a culture of intimidation,” he said.
As provincial officials prepare for the return of Sam Rainsy by monitoring his supporters, the government has deployed a coalition of forces along the border with Thailand with the intent of preventing the acting CNRP chief from using the neighboring country to enter Cambodia.
On Tuesday, Minister of Defense Tea Banh confirmed that military forces have been deployed along the border and will be ready to arrest Sam Rainsy.
“I don’t need to tell you how many [military officers] have been sent, but they are being deployed to protect our sovereignty,” he said. “We have enough officers [there].”
Tea Banh told RFA that he agrees with a senior military official who recently compared Sam Rainsy to a “cancerous cell” that needs to be “removed.”
Cambodian migrant workers told RFA that they are continuing preparations in Thailand to accompany Sam Rainsy across the border on Nov. 9 to restore democracy in Cambodia.
“The acting president will return regardless of the troop deployment,” said worker Chhuoy Sopheap. “We will demand the return of our freedoms that have been lost.”
Analyst Lao Mong Hay called the decision to deploy troops “unconstitutional,” saying such a move must be agreed to by King Norodom Sihamoni.
“The prime minister and military commander in chief cannot make these decisions on their own, without the King.”
Seoung Sen Karona, a spokesman for local human rights group Adhoc, said he doesn’t want to see the government use the military to resolve a political crisis, and urged the ruling and opposition parties to instead engage in peaceful talks.
Thai arrest warrants
Meanwhile, a Thai security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, told RFA that Cambodia had forwarded warrants to the Thai government for Sam Rainsy, CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua, and six other party officials, with orders to arrest them if they arrive in Thailand for transit into Cambodia.
“But Thai authorities don’t want to get involved in [Cambodia’s] internal matter,” the official said, noting that authorities chose instead to blacklist Mu Sochua from entry into the country last week to assist in preparations for Sam Rainsy’s return.
“There was a Cambodian request for Thailand to disallow Cambodian workers to use Thailand as a spring board to meddle in its neighboring country’s affairs,” the official added.
According to the official, the CNRP claims to have up to 160,000 supporters in Thailand.
“There are some workers making moves to mobilize people and they want to make news by getting Thai police to arrest them, but Thai officials are trying to quell the situation without making any arrests,” the official said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.