PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Police briefly detained 11 activists on Tuesday in what officials say was an attempt to maintain order, as the activists tried to deliver petitions to foreign diplomats in the Cambodian capital following a ban on protests that took effect this month.
The arrests come just weeks after authorities violently cracked down on labor and opposition protests. They also mirror similar detentions of rights activists in recent weeks, prompting concern that the government is trying to suppress freedom of expression in the midst of growing political unrest.
The arrested persons, comprising union leaders and land-rights advocates, were planning to ask the U.S. Embassy for help in securing the release of 23 other people who were detained this month during a crackdown on striking garment workers and opposition protesters, the non-profit Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or Licadho, said in a statement.
The 11 men and women were arrested roughly between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. local time, and brought to a police station in Phnom Penh. They were released around 2 p.m. after declaring that they would not take part in further demonstrations – dubbed illegal activities by authorities – according to rights activists and opposition officials.
Military police spokesman Brig. Gen. Kheng Tito confirmed the arrests and subsequent releases.
“After educating and advising [the activists] on the law and public security, we released them,” he said. “We want them to understand the law and the political situation right now.”
Rong Chhun, the leader of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, and one of the 11 people detained, said he was not in the wrong.
“And we won’t stop protesting unless our rights are respected,” he said, following his release.
Tuesday’s petitioning was the start of a planned three-day event in which activists aimed to deliver petitions to 19 embassies—including the U.S., U.K., French, German and Japanese missions. Signed by around 180 civil society groups, the petitions sought foreign state support in pressuring Cambodian authorities to release the 23 people detained during a crackdown between Jan. 2-4 that ended in violence.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Nicolas Baudoin, a spokesman for the French Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the mission received a petition from activists on Tuesday without incident.
Of the 11 detainees, five were female land-rights activists who had been detained under similar circumstances on Jan. 6, when they attempted to deliver an earlier petition to the French Embassy. Police released them that same day after warning them not to protest while the ban was in place. The five women, including Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha, are leading representatives from a group of residents who oppose the reclamation of and property development on Boeung Kak Lake in northern Phnom Penh.
Faced with growing political unrest, Cambodian authorities have cracked down on opposition and labor protesters in recent weeks.
Security forces started arresting garment workers pushing for higher wages on Jan. 2. Clashes turned deadly the next day, when police shot and killed at least four people. Authorities then cleared out a main rallying point in Phnom Penh for supporters of the government opposition and banned protests in the capital indefinitely.
The crackdown quelled the garment strike and halted opposition protests but stunned activists with its heavy-handedness. Political analysts say authorities were likely concerned about labor unions joining forces with a growing opposition movement, which is disputing the results of a July election and calling for an end to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 28-year hold on power.
Rights advocates say they fear Tuesday’s arrests could signal the government’s growing inclination toward suppressing civil liberties.
Government officials say their actions are necessary to maintain public order.
The latest arrests also follow an official visit last week by the United Nations special envoy for human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, who expressed concern over the crackdown and arrests during meetings with Mr. Hun Sen and other senior Cambodian officials.
Noting a “worrying change from a tolerant to a repressive response of the government to public protests,” Mr. Subedi called on Mr. Hun Sen to investigate the Jan. 3 shootings and lift the ban on protests in Phnom Penh, according to a U.N. report on the envoy’s visit to Cambodia.