Two activist Buddhist monks have fled Cambodia for neighboring Thailand to avoid arrest, saying they became targets of the country’s ruling party after joining a social justice protest demanding the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun in late July.
Bor Bet, 34, and Sim Sovandy, 54, told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that they had followed a Khmer guide through the jungle for two nights before reaching the border, where they were taken by car to central Thailand by a Thai driver.
According to Bor Bet, the pair fled because authorities had been “hunting for us” to force them to be disrobed. He said they became “wanted” after refusing to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), despite pressure from Buddhist officials authorities.
“We went through a big ordeal for our trip,” he said.
“We had to cross a waterway on floating tires and three lines of the Thai military’s barbed wire, all with no food and through swarms of mosquitoes. I have never been through such difficulty before.”
Bor Bet and Sim Sovandy, who both had lived in the Prayuvong Buddhist Temple in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, left the city on Aug. 4 and hid in the jungle near the Thai border for more than two months. Since then, they said, officials with the Buddhist clergy repeatedly sought them at the temple and in their hometowns.
The monks said that they were targeted after joining protests calling for the freedom of Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions and a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council.
Scores of Cambodian civil society groups have condemned his arrest, demanding that the government release him and drop charges of “incitement” he faces over his criticism of the country’s handling of a border dispute with Vietnam.
He was jailed at Prey Sar Prison on Aug. 1, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border. He faces two years in prison if convicted.
In particular, Bor Bet and Sim Sovandy said they were frustrated by the government’s decision to arrest Rong Chhun and others who have worked to defend human rights and the country’s natural resources.
‘At high risk’
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Phnom Penh Police Commission spokesperson San Sok Seyha rejected the claim by the two monks that authorities had been seeking to arrest them.
“We don’t know anything about this—what can we say,” he said.
“In Cambodia, both monks and laypeople enjoy full freedom. If they don’t commit any wrongdoing, they don’t need to be afraid of anything. Those who are in fear [and run away] do so because they did something wrong.”
However, Soeng Senkaruna, a spokesman for the Cambodian rights group ADHOC, agreed that the two monks are likely to be arrested if they return to the country, noting that his organization had confirmed that authorities went searching for them in their hometowns.
He said it was “unlawful” to persecute the pair because they had only peacefully expressed their opinions—a right guaranteed under Cambodia’s constitution.
“They are at high risk if they live in Cambodia,” he said.
“If they want to go on fighting for their nation, they have to go live in exile where they can continue their advocacy. Nobody can stop them from seeking political asylum because doing so is protected by the United Nations.”
Prior to taking part in the July 31 protest, the two monks had taken part in several social justice activities, including patrolling Prey Lang forest to prevent illegal logging and monitoring disputed areas of the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
The pair told RFA that after finding a stable place to settle in Thailand, they will again take up their activism on behalf of social justice in Cambodia.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.