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Cambodian Opposition Lawmaker Arrested for Border Comments

FILE - Um Sam An, a prominent opposition lawmaker, challenges a Cambodian official about a border issue in a news conference July 2, 2015. (Neou Vannarin/VOA Khmer)

Prominent opposition lawmaker Um Sam An was arrested late Sunday in Siem Reap province for comments he made about the border with Vietnam, a government spokesman said Monday.

Last year, Sam An led a group of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activists to the Vietnamese-Cambodian border and criticized the Cambodian government for using what he said was the wrong map to demarcate the frontier. He then left for the United States to search for alternative "real" maps. Another member of the group, CNRP Senator Hong Sok Hour, was arrested on charges related to the border issue.

General Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman at the Interior Ministry, told VOA Khmer that Sam An's comments in 2015 and during his trip to the U.S. were "incitement to create chaos in Cambodia and social unrest," and that they were racist against the Vietnamese.

"As VOA audiences heard before he was arrested, when he was in Cambodia and in the States, his words were no different from inciting to create social unrest," Sopheak said. "First, he tried to make people angry about losing land and convince them that the government had used a fake map."

Sopheak insisted the government is trying not to repeat the mistakes of Cambodia's civil war, which was partly sparked by tensions over the country's border with Vietnam. At the time, North Vietnamese communists and insurgents in the south were using Cambodian territory to fight the United States.

"As we all know, [Sam An] used racist words that were used in 1970, and led to civil war," he said. "In sum, we arrested him, like we did with another accused person, Hong Sok Hour. We are going to send him to the court."

Sam An was sent to court Monday for several hours of questioning, before being returned to custody.

Arrest condemned

The CNRP released a statement Monday condemning the arrest as a violation of Cambodia's Constitution. Under the charter, members of parliament cannot be arrested in most cases without special permission of the National Assembly.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann also rejected Sopheak's description of the lawmaker's alleged crimes.

"There's no obvious crime, no offense," he told VOA Khmer. "If he [Sam An] claimed his map is correct and the government or ruling party said it is fake, we should have a dialogue."

Sovann also questioned law enforcement officials' handling of the case, which involved a late night raid to take Sam An into custody. "Why do we use these means? It creates a bad practice." Sovann said.

History of speaking out

Sam An has become well-known in recent years for his strong stance on the government's alleged mishandling of the border, but he has a long history of political activism. He led the pro-democracy Students' Movement for Democracy in the 1990s, opposing Prime Minister Hun Sen's government on human rights issues and corruption, as well as border issues.

Sam An now has American citizenship, having moved to the U.S. in about 2003 to study. He gained a master's degree in management from Cambridge College and resided in Lowell, Massachusetts — home to a large Cambodian American community. He returned to Cambodia before the 2013 general election, at which time he won his National Assembly seat.

Sam An's detention is the 16th arrest of a CNRP member or activist in less than a year.

Sopheak said the Interior Ministry will report to the National Assembly about Sam An's crimes, so that it can vote on whether to oppose the arrest. National Assembly spokesman Leng Penglong confirmed that parliament will vote Tuesday.

Produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service, with reporting by Sok Khemara