Cambodian authorities arrested a former opposition party activist on Thursday, taking him into custody in northwestern Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province where he had gone to work as a taxi driver, sources told RFA’s Khmer Service as the government of Hun Sen continued legal action against the party it banned nearly two years ago.
Hun Sokong, a member of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and a former resident of the central province of Kampong Cham, was arrested without a warrant and is being held on an unknown charge, sources said.
“My husband has been arrested unjustly,” Hun Sokong’s wife Khan Sokunthea told RFA on Thursday, saying that the former party activist had given up politics after the CNRP was banned by court order two years ago and had moved to Banteay Meanchey to find work.
“He went there just to make a living,” Khan Sokunthea said. “My husband has not committed any crime.”
Also speaking to RFA, Sum Chankea—provincial coordinator for the Cambodia-based rights group Adhoc—called Hun Sokong’s arrest an attempt by authorities to silence opposition to the rule of Hun Sen.
“Our constitution guarantees the people’s enjoyment of political rights, and all arrests must be made in compliance with the constitution,” he said.
Three other CNRP activists were arrested earlier this week in the central province of Kampong Thom, and have been charged with “incitement to commit a felony,” a rights worker in the province told RFA, calling the arrests an attack on Cambodians’ right to freedom of speech.
Criticism not a crime
Criticizing the government is not a crime, Khorn Sochea—provincial coordinator for the rights group Licadho—said, adding, “Our constitution allows free speech, both on Facebook and on other social media platforms.”
Speaking to RFA, Sok Thai—the wife of CNRP activist Nou Phoeun—said her husband had been arrested on Sept. 4 after posting criticisms of Cambodia’s government on his Facebook page. Nou Phoeun had been the family’s only breadwinner, she said.
“The authorities should have just cautioned my husband and not detained him," she said.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Secretary of State for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry Ngy Chanphal dismissed international criticism of the country’s rights record, saying, “Other countries are not our teachers who can lecture us about democracy.”
“From the time of our [first] general election in 1993 until now, we have had a thriving democracy that includes freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and unhindered political activity and rights for nongovernmental organizations,” he said.
Cambodia’s democracy is continuing to improve, Ngy Chanphal said.
No checks and balances
Speaking to RFA, Soeung Sen Karuna—a spokesman for the rights group Adhoc—said however that Cambodia still has no functioning system of checks and balances between its government, its national legislature, and the courts.
“Cambodia has not yet fully implemented its constitution, and the country’s leaders make decisions arbitrarily,” he said.
In September 2017, Cambodian authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha, and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for the party’s alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodian courts have frequently come under fire for acting at the apparent direction of Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Since the start of 2019, authorities have summoned over 147 CNRP members and supporters around the country for questioning, international human rights monitoring group Human Rights Watch noted in a statement in August, calling on concerned governments to demand “the immediate and unconditional release of former opposition members and activists arbitrarily detained.”
Acting CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has meanwhile vowed to return to Cambodia from exile on Nov. 9 with other high-ranking party officials to oust Hun Sen and restore democracy to Cambodia, despite threats by Hun Sen to imprison him.
Letter to the King
In a joint letter sent on Sept. 3, four Cambodian NGOs petitioned the country’s King Norodom Sihamoni to intervene in Cambodia’s political crisis, saying that CPP attacks on democracy, human rights, press freedoms, and freedom of assembly have left the country open to threats of damaging sanctions imposed by trading partners in the West.
“We would like the King to chair a meeting between the CPP and CNRP to restore democracy and normalize the country,” said the statement signed by the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, and two other prominent groups.
Both parties must sit down together to seek political solutions, Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun told RFA in an interview.
“If the CPP tries to exclude the CNRP, the country will fall into crisis,” he said.
Cambodia’s government won’t negotiate with the CNRP, “because we are not in a crisis situation,” government spokesman Phay Siphan said, however, calling the NGO’s petition to the king “laughable.”
“To ask the King to get involved in politics just puts pressure on the King,” he said.
The normally reticent Sihamoni earlier this year appealed for national unity amid the political tensions in the southeast Asian country.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.