Jailed union leader Rong Chhun has urged his supporters to continue to fight injustice in Cambodia despite government intimidation and vowed to return to his work as a human rights campaigner upon his releas, in one of his first statements since he was sentenced to prison for “incitement” last week.
On Aug. 18, a court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh sentenced Rong Chhun, who is also a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC) umbrella NGO of unions representing teachers, workers, farmers, and students, to two years in jail for his criticism of the government’s handling of a longstanding border dispute with neighboring Vietnam.
Rong Chhun was jailed at Prey Sar Prison on Aug. 1, 2020, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on Cambodian farmland along the border.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court also ordered Rong Chhun to pay 2 million riels (U.S. $490) in fines, in addition to serving the maximum two-year prison term for his charge of “incitement to commit a felony” in violation of Article 495 of Cambodia’s penal code.
The court sentenced two other activists, Sar Kanika and Tun Nimol, each to serve 20 months in jail and pay the same fine. The court also ordered the three activists to pay about 400,000 riels (U.S. $100) in compensation to the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee.
On Wednesday, Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Rong Chhun called her from his cell on Aug. 23, urging his fellow activists not to abandon their fight for freedom and social justice, despite the government’s use of the courts to intimidate them.
“He doesn’t want us to ignore any unjust actions and stop making demands because of intimidation,” she said. “He said he wants us to be strong.”
She said Rong Chhun told her he will “be out of jail within 11 months” and will “return to lead social and human rights work,” as he had done prior to his arrest.
In response to Rong Chhun’s statement, ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA that Cambodians already enjoy their full freedoms and “there is no need to demand more,” adding that the union leader’s statement “smacks of incitement.”
“We should demand something that we don’t have, but we currently enjoy full freedom,” he said.
“[Most people] have been using it correctly except for a small group who don’t like it. Why should we demand more? Such a demand is yet another form of incitement.”
But Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students Secretary General Kean Ponlok welcomed Rong Chhun’s statement, saying the activist always “puts the national interest ahead of his own, even when he is in jail.”
“He is a true nationalist who has sacrificed himself for the national interest,” he said.
“It is a good thing for [him] to appeal to youths and activists not to be intimidated in their protests and fight against social injustice.”
UN experts slam ruling
On Tuesday, Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, slammed authorities for convicting Rong Chhun and his supporters, calling the prison terms and fines “neither justified nor proportionate.”
“I am extremely alarmed that the court convicted the three human rights defenders for acts that are protected by their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, rights guaranteed by Cambodian and international law,” he said in a statement.
Mary Lawlor, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said “human rights defenders should never be arrested, detained or convicted for their efforts to protect human rights of others.”
“We are seriously concerned that the Cambodian government uses the vaguely-worded Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code against ‘incitement to create felony’ to crack down on dissent and to stifle free expression,” the experts said, calling for an end to the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders.
Threat of deportation
Meanwhile, activists with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who are seeking political asylum in Thailand due to charges they say are politically motivated expressed concern Wednesday that they will be forcibly deported to face prosecution following a senior Cambodian official’s request to his counterpart.
On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s advisor and Ministry of Tourism Secretary of State Sok Sokretya asked Thai Minister of Digital Economy and Society Chaiwut Thanakanusorn to help prevent opposition party activists from using social media in Thailand to attack the Cambodian government.
In a comment posted to his Facebook account, Sok Sokretya also requested the Thai official to stop “fake news” that might affect the two countries’ relationship.
Neang Sokhun, an activist who was jailed and is currently seeking asylum in Thailand, told RFA that the request is yet another sign that his security and that of his fellow CNRP rights campaigners might be compromised. He urged NGOs to monitor the situation, saying the government might seek their deportations.
“Even though I am afraid, we will continue our mission for democracy and freedom for Cambodians,” he said.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, marking the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Another activist in Thailand, Voeun Samnang, said he is afraid that Hun Sen’s government will “hire hitmen” to harm them, but vowed to continue broadcasting information about its failures with other CNRP asylum seekers in Thailand through the use of Facebook Live.
“I am not afraid of being deported, but I am afraid of being ambushed,” he said.
Am Sam Ath of Cambodian rights group Licadho told RFA that people should be allowed to use social media freely and responsibly and said he does not believe the Thai government would deport the activists at Cambodia’s request.
“A democratic country must respect freedom of expression and constructive criticism,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.