Prominent opposition lawmaker Um Sam An was arrested late on Sunday night in Siem Reap province over comments he made about the border with Vietnam, a government spokesman said on Monday.
Last year, Um 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, while CNRP Senator Hong Sok Hour was arrested and charged related to the border issue.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman at the Interior Ministry, told VOA Khmer that Um 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,” Gen. Sopheak said.
“First, he tried to make people angry about losing land and convince them that the government had used a fake map.”
Gen. Sopheak insisted that the government was trying not to repeat the mistakes of Cambodia’s civil war, which was partly sparked by tension over the country’s border with Vietnam. North Vietnamese Communists and insurgents in the south were at the time fighting United States and using Cambodian territory to do so.
“As we all know, he [Um Sam An] used racist words that we 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.”
Um Sam An was sent to the court on Monday afternoon for several hours of questioning, before returning to the custody of the Interior Ministry’s anti-terrorism and cross-border crime department.
The CNRP on Monday released a statement condemning the arrest as a violation of Cambodia’s Constitution. Under Article 80 of the charter, members of parliament cannot be arrested in most cases without special permission from the National Assembly.
“This arrest constitutes a serious violation of the principal of parliamentary immunity, a principle enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” read the statement, adding that CNRP is calling for the immediate release of the lawmaker.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann also rejected Gen. 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. Each party can explain with their references because this is a matter of national interest, not personal interest.”
Sovann also questioned law enforcement officials’ handling of the case, which involved a late-night raid to take Um Sam An into custody. “Why do we use these means? It creates a bad practice,” he said.
Um Sam An has become well known in recent years for his strong stance over 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.
Um 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 he won his National Assembly seat.
Um Sam An’s detention is the 16th arrest of a CNRP members or activist in less than a year. That figure includes Senator Hong Sok Hour, who was arrested in August before being stripped of his parliamentary immunity.
Gen. Sopheak said the Ministry of Interior will report to the National Assembly about Um Sam An’s crimes, so that they can vote on whether to oppose the arrest or not.
National Assembly spokesman Leng Penglong confirmed that parliament would vote on Tuesday.
“We will have a plenary session tomorrow afternoon to vote on his case,” Leng Penglong said.
VOA Khmer's Sok Khemara contributed to this report.