Cambodian Youths Held Overnight by Police for Collecting Thumbprints in Petition Drive

Cambodian police on Thursday stopped a youth group from collecting thumbprints in support of a petition drive asking Prime Minister Hun Sen to address cases of economic hardship in the country, forcing them to add their own prints instead to a pledge to end their campaign, sources said.

Under pressure from authorities, the group had already canceled plans to lead a march to Hun Sen’s cabinet office in Phnom Penh, where they had planned to call for government payments to the millions of Cambodians left jobless as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Keo Thithlida, president of the Women for Society Association, and six other youths were held overnight by Stung Meanchey I district police and released next day after putting their thumbprints on a document handed to them by police, Yean Raksa—a member of the association’s board of directors—told RFA on Thursday.

“They told me very briefly that they will now suspend their campaign and that they don’t want to talk about it,” Yean Raksa said. “I don’t know if they were simply told to do this or if they were pressured in some way.”

“What I can see is that they are afraid,” he said.

RFA could not reach the detained youths for comment, but the association later asked local media not to use any information in its reporting not taken from the group’s own Facebook page.

“We don’t want to become a political tool,” Yean Raksa said.

“We don’t want to see any allegations [made against us] of political motivations or ill will. We are youth with clean hands,” he added.

Reached for comment, Phnom Penh Municipality Police spokesperson San Sokseiha declined to discuss the youths’ detention and release, saying he had no information about the case and was too busy to speak.

‘A normal campaign’

But Ny Sokha, a spokesperson for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said the youths had not committed any crime.

Forcing people to place their thumbprints on documents in exchange for their release is illegal and a violation of people’s rights, he said.

“They were waging a normal [campaign],” he said. “They were seeking support because we live in a democratic world, and they should be allowed to express their views.”

Many Cambodians are now struggling to pay their debts and meet the costs of rent, utility bills, and gasoline amid Cambodia’s latest outbreak of COVID-19 after an already year-long shutdown of the economy.

Cambodia marked its first official death from COVID-19 on March 11, a year to the day after the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled the coronavirus a global pandemic. Since then, five people have died as a result of the disease.

While Cambodia has remained relatively unscathed by the virus, it reported a daily record last week of 105 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the country’s total number of infections to 1,430—nearly triple that of a month ago when the latest outbreak was first detected.

By Wednesday, the number of infections had climbed to 1,817.

A court in Phnom Penh has meanwhile charged a Cambodian man in a first case of “tampering” under the provisions of a new law forbidding criticism of the Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine.

The accused, Tor Chanthi, was arrested on Wednesday after posting a video on TikTok urging factory workers not to take the shot.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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