Senior Cambodian Opposition Member Assaulted, Remains Unconscious in Hospital

cambodia-cnrp-paint-over-headquarters-nov-2017.jpg A supporter of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) paints over the party logo at party headquarters in Phnom Penh, Nov. 18, 2017.

A senior member of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was brutally assaulted in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh Monday by two unidentified men on a motorbike, leaving him unconscious and in the hospital, according to his wife.

Din Varin, secretary general of the CNRP’s executive committee and an elected councilor for Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, was hit in the head with a rock by his assailant while walking on the street after visiting a cafe, knocking him out and causing severe bleeding, his wife Chan Sopheak, also known as Chan In, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

His injury has been complicated by serious hemorrhaging, she said of her husband, who has also been vomiting blood since the incident. The assailants fled the scene and police have said they are investigating the case.

At least 10 CNRP activists and officials have been beaten since late 2019, mostly by motorbike-riding attackers targeting their heads. None of the perpetrators have been arrested.

Chan In said she does not believe the assault was the result of a personal matter, as her husband was not involved in any disputes and owes no money.

She told RFA her son had filed a complaint with the Chak Angre Krom administrative police station. But said she does not trust them to follow through because assailants involved in the beatings of opposition activists in many cases are rarely sought, let alone brought to justice.

“Whenever I go anywhere, I want to carry a stick or a machete,” she said. “I'm not afraid anymore now—I can do it for my husband.”

“Why did they turn to assaulting my husband? They dissolved the party he supported and now they assault him. He was unarmed and merely helped me earn our daily living. My husband never had any arguments with anyone.”

Authorities arrested CNRP chief Kem Sokha in September 2017 and the Supreme Court banned his party for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government two months later. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Kem Sokha was released from pre-trial detention to house arrest in September 2018 and granted bail in November last year by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the terms of which allowed him to travel within Cambodia but restricted him from taking part in any political activities.

Chan In said she and her husband sell vegetables and pork at the Chak Angre Krom market. She said that since the dissolution of the opposition party, her husband had switched careers to help transport meat and run their market stall.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sok Seiha confirmed to RFA that authorities had already received a complaint from the victim's family and are conducting an investigation into the case.

“We can’t just listen to accusations,” he said. “In the name of the authorities, we have to investigate proper sources and find clear evidence so that we can make an assessment.”

Am Sam Ath, deputy director in charge of investigation for local rights group Licadho, said at least 10 opposition activists have been assaulted by strangers in Phnom Penh and the provinces, and that the public is losing faith in the authorities. They believe the violence is politically motivated, he said.

He called the assault on Din Varin “intentional violence,” and said the authorities must arrest the perpetrators and punish them according to the law to avoid any criticism. He said that if the violence continues without arrests, more and more CNRP activists will worry about their safety.

“By law, the authorities must provide security and justice for the people without any discrimination,” he said.

Protesters call outside Phnom Penh's Municipal Court for the release of Cambodian union leader Rong Chhun, Aug. 5, 2020.
Protesters call outside Phnom Penh's Municipal Court for the release of Cambodian union leader Rong Chhun, Aug. 5, 2020.
Fatal accident

Separately, Chum Putho, the son of jailed opposition activist Chum Puthy, who is being held in Prey Sar Prison, was killed in a traffic accident in Svay Rieng province at around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday while he was traveling to his hometown.

Chum Puthy's wife and mother of Chum Putho, Chhin Sovanna, believes that her son's accident is not politically motivated because it occurred as a result of a collision with a truck carrying factory workers. But she said wants the prison warden to allow her husband to attend his son's funeral in Svay Rieng.

Chhin Sovanna has already submitted a request via lawyer Sam Sokong to ask the prison authorities to consider allowing Chum Puthy to attend the funeral. Chum Putho was the eldest of Chum Puthy’s six children. Chhin Sovanna is six months pregnant and about to give birth to her seventh child.

“The situation is very difficult—we are destitute and don’t have money to hold a funeral for him,” she said.

“I’m lost and I do not know what else to do. I have not slept since yesterday. I want to go to the prison tomorrow to inform my husband and ask the prison warden to see if they will permit him to attend our son’s funeral.”

Phnom Penh authorities arrested Chum Puthy, Chhin Sovanna and two other opposition activists, Chhour Pheng and Ouk Sam Oun, at Wat Than pagoda on the night of Aug. 4, when they traveled there to monitor police and monk officials detaining eight monks who planned to protest in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to demand the release of Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions and a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council.

Police later released Chhin Sovanna and Ouk Sam Oun but accused Chum Puthy and Chhour Pheng of incitement to cause chaos. The eight monks were later sent back to Battambang province.

Scores of Cambodian civil society groups have condemned the arrest of Rong Chhun demanding that the government release him and drop charges of “incitement” he faces over his criticism of the country’s handling of a border dispute with Vietnam.

He was jailed at Prey Sar Prison on Aug. 1, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border. He faces two years in prison if convicted.

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni (R) and his mother former queen Monique (L) walk past honor guards during the cremation of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi in front of a pagoda in Phnom Penh, Nov. 25, 2019.
Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni (R) and his mother former queen Monique (L) walk past honor guards during the cremation of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi in front of a pagoda in Phnom Penh, Nov. 25, 2019.
New arrests

In Battambang province, police arrested two of the CNRP’s former provincial executive committee members Kong Bun Heang and Hang Seng on Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, respectively, under the country’s lèse-majesté law for “insulting the King.” The two men have since been taken to Phnom Penh, but their whereabouts have not been made public.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kimkhoeun told RFA the pair are “under judicial procedure” but did not specify where they were or why they had been charged.

“We have not decided on their cases yet,” he said. “I cannot disclose details—let the authorities work first—but the charges are based on insulting the King. The authorities are working on it.”

Kong Bun Heang’s wife Sen Sy said she has yet to be officially notified by authorities of the reason for her husband’s detention, which she said occurred late at night and without a warrant. She said she was very worried about Kong Bun Heang’s safety because he is old and has had a stroke, while he also suffers from high blood pressure and paralysis of the right ankle.

Sen Sy called on authorities to release her husband because he hadn’t done anything wrong.

“I request that authorities release my husband as soon as possible so that he can return home and I can take care of him, because he is on medication,” she said.

Sen Sy noted that police had told her during Kong Bun Heang’s arrest that higher-level authorities wanted to question him over attending a gathering at a pagoda during the past Pchum Ben festival to honor one’s ancestors with Kem Sokha in mid-September. Hang Seng had also attended the event.

Cambodia’s lèse-majesté law, adopted in February 2018, allows prosecutors to file criminal suits on behalf of the country’s monarchy against anyone deemed to have insulted a member of the royal family. Those found guilty can be sentenced to up to five years in prison and fines of between U.S. $500 and $2,500.

A constitutional monarchy, King Norodom Sihamoni is Cambodia’s official head of state, but Hun Sen has ruled the country for more than three decades.

Rights groups have warned that the law could be used to target those critical of the government, much like in neighboring Thailand, where insulting the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Pro-democracy protesters give the three-finger salute as they sit behind barricades during an anti-government rally at Kaset intersection in Bangkok, Oct. 19, 2020.
Pro-democracy protesters give the three-finger salute as they sit behind barricades during an anti-government rally at Kaset intersection in Bangkok, Oct. 19, 2020.
Thai demonstrations

Demonstrators in Thailand defied an emergency decree banning public gatherings of more than five people and protested in the streets for the fifth day in a row on Sunday, calling for a new constitution and limits to King Vajiralongkorn’s power. Some 10,000 people crowded around Bangkok's Victory Monument and blocking traffic downtown.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the leader of the country’s 2014 coup who has also faced calls to step down, has said parliament could hold an emergency session to break the political crisis but warned that the government must “protect the monarchy.”

Acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy expressed support for the Thai protesters Monday, posting a photo on Facebook of himself holding up three fingers—a gesture from the movie the Hunger Games adopted by the movement as a symbol of defiance against the government.

“Now in Thailand, people raise up their three fingers to show their fight against the dictatorship and the corrupt tycoons, who are family members of the dictators,” he wrote in a caption accompanying the photo.

CNRP members who have fled what they say are politically motivated charges in Cambodia and are living in Thailand told RFA that they have been monitoring the political crisis there and are impressed by the methods that young Thai protesters have employed against the Thai government.

Neang Sokhon said the young Thai protesters are using social media to mobilize—a tactic he hopes to employ back home.

“They use social media to form teams and each team has a team leader in each target zone in their gathering protests,” he said.

“Each team connects to other zones. They communicate via social media about their meeting time and places for holding the protest. They don’t have a [single] leader or party leader like in our country.”

Former CNRP youth member for Phnom Penh Khin Chumreourn believes that, soon, Cambodia will face Thai-style demonstrations if land grabs continue to increase and Hun Sen continues to crackdown on opposition members and deprive people of their freedom.

“I strongly hope that, soon, Cambodia will have a demonstration like … Thailand now, because Cambodian people have been in so much pain for a long time.,” he said.

“People have been suffered from land grabs and dissenting activists have been mistreated.”

Another CNRP youth member named Karuna Pov said that the youth of Cambodia and Thailand share a similar perspective and believes that if Sam Rainsy can return home from self-imposed exile in Paris, the country will see the same type and scale of demonstrations.

“This model of protest in Thailand will spread to Cambodia, where a majority of young people want to make change,” he said.

“They are waiting to see what is going to happen when Sam Rainsy travels back to Cambodia.”

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan told RFA that such protests will never happen in Cambodia and mocked the CNRP youth by saying that if they want to import Thai-style demonstrations, they should come back to the country instead of speaking from afar.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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