Authorities in Cambodia’s Takeo province have arrested a man who falsely claimed on Facebook that Vietnamese men kidnapped Cambodian children and removed their organs, prompting Prime Minister Hun Sen to warn against using social media to spread rumors on Tuesday.
On Monday, police arrested Ly Chhaya after his claims that Vietnamese men had cut out the kidneys and eyeballs of a young girl in Khvav commune’s Svay Torng village, in Takeo’s Samraong district, went viral on social media, and charged him with “falsifying documents and inciting unrest.”
An investigation by authorities into Ly Chhaya’s allegations determined that his claims were false and on Tuesday, he was sent to the Takeo Provincial Court to face prosecution.
Takeo provincial deputy police commissioner Chhun Sareth told RFA’s Khmer Service that an investigation is underway to determine who may have instructed Ly Chhaya to spread the rumors.
“If there were people masterminding this act, [Ly Chhaya] did not admit to it, so we must investigate further,” he said.
Similar claims have spread online in recent weeks, according to deputy police commissioner Kiet Chantharith, who told RFA’s Khmer Service that other social media posts said Vietnamese men had been kidnapping children and harvesting their organs in 10 different provinces and cities, many of them including racist undertones.
On July 29, police arrested teacher and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activist Nay Sineng after he wrote online that three Vietnamese men had removed the kidneys and eyeballs of children in Prey Veng province, and that a mob had captured two of them.
“Please be careful with your children since they are very wild,” he wrote, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post, adding the “disclaimer” that “we are not racist, but we hate this activity that these guys have committed against innocent children.”
The Post cited Kampong Thom police chief Ouk Kosal as saying that the captured men—who he said were from Prey Veng province’s Kampong Trabek district—were not Vietnamese or kidnappers. He said monks had reported them as suspicious to police, who had begun to question them when they tried to flee and were beaten by an angry mob.
Nay Sineng was charged Sunday by Kampong Thom Provincial Court investigating Judge Heng Sokchea with “the communication or disclosure of any false information with a view to inducing a belief that a destruction, defacement or damage dangerous to other persons will be carried out” and sent to pre-trial detention.
Vietnam and Cambodia have had a fraught relationship for centuries, and much of the recent animosity in Cambodia stems from the 1979-89 Vietnamese occupation that ended the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge and installed Hun Sen as prime minister.
Social media warning
During a commencement speech on Koh Pich Island in the capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Hun Sen urged Facebook users to refrain from posting “fake news,” calling such acts a form of “social pollution.” Earlier, authorities had warned that legal measures would be taken against anyone posting or sharing false reports online.
Hun Sen also warned the CNRP against spreading false claims about his death on social media and urged the party’s leaders to “better manage” their activists and supporters.
“[They have said that] Hun Sen is already dead as the result of a plane crash while he is traveling to Vietnam,” he said.
“Such cases always come from the opposition party’s members. So if the opposition party’s leaders fail to cope with it, they will be putting themselves in danger.”
RFA was unable to reach CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann Tuesday for comment in response to Hun Sen’s warning.
But the Phnom Penh Post quoted him as saying he hoped authorities would conduct an “independent investigation” into the case of Nay Sineng and distanced the opposition party from any racial rhetoric.
Authorities have arrested several people recently in connection with social media posts that insult or threaten the life of Hun Sen.
On June 25, a Facebook user calling himself “Kamvithy Lob Lob Te Sabay” (Stupid But Happy) posted a photo of a flaming airplane with a comment saying that Hun Sen had died in an air accident while traveling to Vietnam.
Late last month, a court in the capital charged two people in one week with making a “death threat” under Article 233 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code for allegedly threatening the life of Hun Sen on his Facebook page.
According to government-aligned media group Fresh News, Rom Chamroeurn had posted a photo of himself posing with a pistol alongside text that said, “Hun Sen, somehow I will kill you” and claiming that Cambodia would not have peace until the strongman was dead.
A week earlier, police in Sihanoukville detained a young man named Pich Ratha, also for allegedly threatening to kill Hun Sen in a comment posted to the prime minister’s Facebook page.
Observers have warned against the erosion of freedom of speech online and suggested that the government refrain from broad threats of legal action.
Local political commentator Lao Mong Hay told RFA that clearer guidelines are needed to deal with the proliferation of false reports online.
“A general law should be created to punish only those [involved in posting the fake news] or its dissemination,” he said.
“Such claims should not be used to target other [innocent persons]. A general order or regulation should be issued.”
Yang Kim Eng, director of the Center for Civic Development and Peace, called for authorities to educate would-be fake news proliferators instead of dragging offenders to court.
“The government or the General Commissioner of the National Police or the Minister of the Interior should warn [those who posted fake news on Facebook] so that these people can apologize in public,” he said.
Other civil society groups have also accused the authorities of practicing a double standard by arresting those who have allegedly threatened members of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), when several people who have made death threats against members of the CNRP remain at large.
Reported by Vanndeth Van and Moniroth Morm for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.