An activist and former elected official of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was beaten nearly to death in Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province by a group of unidentified men, who only spared him after bystanders intervened, he said Friday.
Four men approached Sun Thun early in the morning on Friday to inquire about purchasing a plot of his land and attacked him when he took them to the area to inspect it, he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“They wanted to kill me,” said Sun Thun, adding that the men fled when passersby saw what was happening and called out for help.
While Sun Thun stopped short of saying who his attackers were, he did note that they made no attempt to rob him during the skirmish, suggesting that the beating may have been a form of political retribution or intimidation.
Sun Thun had formerly worked as an educator and had requested that the Ministry of Education temporarily vacate his position after he was elected as a commune councilor for the CNRP, but the ministry told him he could no longer teach, prompting him to file a court complaint over the legality of the decision.
He was later removed from his political post, along with all elected CNRP officials, after the party was disbanded in a November 2017 decision by the Supreme Court for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The move was part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister 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.
Friday’s attack on Sun Thun occurred within days of his announcement that he would resign from politics if the Ministry of Education reinstates him as a teacher.
Since then, he told RFA, local authorities approached him and told him he would need to defect to the CPP if he wanted to teach again.
Sun Thun said he filed a complaint over the incident with local police and an officer with the local police department confirmed to RFA that the station had received a “verbal complaint,” but is awaiting a formal version in writing.
RFA was unable to contact Kampong Thom Provincial Police Chief Ouk Sophal for comment on the attack against Sun Thun on Friday.
Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association, urged local authorities to persecute the four men who beat Sun Thun, calling the attack a threat against all teachers who are politically active.
“This attack is aimed at frightening people who speak out [against the government],” she said.
Meanwhile, while speaking at an event in Phnom Penh on Friday to mark the 68th anniversary of the CPP, Hun Sen said that his party has been working to promote democracy for more than 30 years, dismissing concerns from the European Union over rollbacks on political freedoms that have led the bloc to consider suspending tax-free entry on Cambodian exports under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
“For the past 68 years, even though we faced many challenges, the CPP continues to stay with the people,” he said, adding that the ruling party had “taught the public to love democracy and freedom.”
In February, the EU launched a six-month monitoring period ending in mid-August to determine whether Cambodia should continue to enjoy EBA status. The decision was prompted by the Supreme Court ban on the CNRP.
Hun Sen said Friday that the CPP “won’t bow down to any foreign economic sanctions.”
“Cambodia will not be colonized by any country and we don’t allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs,” he said.
“We won’t bow to any pressure or threats. We have already endured foreign sanctions in the past.”
Acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, speaking to RFA from France, responded to Hun Sen’s remarks by saying that the prime minister “holds the key to ending the EBA crisis” through restoring democracy to Cambodia in line with international demands.
The opposition leader, who has lived in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid a string of what he calls politically motivated convictions, said that he is “still open to political negotiation with the CPP,” reiterating plans to return to Cambodia in September to help heal the country.
“I will return to ensure the country is freed from debt and dictatorship,” he said.
“We seek negotiations, but Hun Sen won’t agree to negotiate with us without pressure. He must be forced to do so [by the people].”
Sam Rainsy said that “at least five EU parliamentarians” have promised to accompany him to Cambodia, and that he is in talks with officials from other countries to increase the number.
“At this time, we must be prepared to sacrifice even our lives to stand up and support the CNRP,” he said.
If enough people join in demonstrations with him when he returns, he said, Hun Sen will be unable to shut them down.
“There are not enough jails to imprison us all,” he said.
US on documentary fixer
Also on Friday the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia said it was “deeply concerned” by the sentencing of Cambodian labor activist Rath Rott Mony to two years in prison for “incitement” after he helped a visiting crew from Russian state-owned TV network RT to make a documentary about child prostitution in the country that was broadcast in October 2018.
“Reports on Mony’s trial suggest that he was not provided fair trial guarantees,” the embassy said in a statement, adding that “his sentencing further erodes the credibility of the Cambodian judicial system.”
“The United States supports freedom of expression worldwide as a key component of democratic governance,” the statement said.
“We call upon the Government of Cambodia to allow all individuals to freely exercise this right, which is protected under international law and the Cambodian constitution, without threat of reprisal.”
The embassy also called freedom of expression “essential” to documenting and raising awareness of Cambodia’s human trafficking problem.
Rath Rott Mony, 48, fled Cambodia for Thailand to seek asylum after helping the RT crew film its documentary, but was arrested by Thai police two months later and handed back to Cambodian authorities.
He had been detained for more than six months by the time Presiding Judge Koy Sao announced the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict finding him guilty of “incitement to cause discrimination” on Wednesday, without elaborating, following the conclusion of his trial two weeks ago.
In addition to being jailed for two years, Rath Rott Mony was also ordered to pay 35 million riels (U.S. $8,600) each to plaintiffs Keo Malai and Tep Sreylin, who said he had promised to help them solve a land dispute and open a shop if they made up stories about forcing their daughters into prostitution for the documentary, entitled “My Mother Sold Me.”
Authorities have said the film contained “fake news” and damaged Cambodia's reputation.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.