Exiled activists with Cambodia’s banned opposition party have launched a campaign to convince villagers to delay loan repayments during the coronavirus outbreak, saying the government has failed to take measures to protect those who have lost their income during the pandemic.
The activists with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that they are leveraging social media platforms such as Facebook to reach out to Cambodians about the movement, despite threats by Prime Minister Hun Sen to arrest anyone who advocates for nonrepayment of debt to the country’s banks and microfinance lenders.
“We have observed during this difficult time that people cannot afford to pay back their debts because they lost their jobs and are unable to earn the same amount of money they used to,” Rin Roth, a Thailand-based CNRP activist said.
“Calling on people to suspend their payments is not illegal, as alleged by the government. Other countries are not only allowing people to suspend payments but are also providing money to those people who have lost their jobs.”
Another activist named Pov Karuna said that he will be working on the debt campaign until a solution is reached, warning that “Cambodians won’t be able to survive” if the banking sector forces them to pay down their debt during the crisis.
“Cambodia will be hit hard economically because of the coronavirus and the loss of EBA status,” he said, referring to a mid-February announcement that the European Union plans to suspend tariff-free access in August to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on human rights.
“We are urging the people not to repay their debts until there is a suitable solution,” he said, adding that the campaign is not part of a bid by the opposition to undermine the government.
The activists said they are following the lead of acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, who also recently urged villagers to stop their loan payments for at least six months in messages posted to social media from Paris, where he has lived since 2015 to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated charges and convictions.
Sam Rainsy’s calls were met with rage by Hun Sen, who threatened to respond to the attempt to “sabotage” his government by adding to the nearly 20 CNRP opposition officials or activists who authorities have arrested and thrown in prison—most without arrest warrants—since the beginning of the year.
Kaing Tongngy, spokesman for the Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA), told RFA he was unaware of the CNRP’s platform with regard to the campaign and refused to comment on it.
But he acknowledged that borrowers had been severely impacted by the outbreak, and said microfinance institutions had restructured loans for some 200,000 people and would continue to do so through the end of 2020.
“We will restructure the loans of those in need, but not of those who have been unaffected by the coronavirus, as that is against the law,” he said.
“Cambodians are responsible people and understand their responsibilities to pay their debts.”
Cambodia Bank Association spokesman Heng Koy said the CNRP campaign won’t have any effect because Cambodians believe that repaying loans is an obligation, regardless of the circumstances.
He called on those negatively impacted by the outbreak to request a restructure of their loans and said that no one had boycotted repayments to date.
“We are sending the message that banks and customers are long-term partners,” he said.
A villager in Banteay Meanchey province named Sean Vy told RFA his microfinance lender had agreed to restructure his loan and allow him to pay only interest for six months.
But he said that he supports the CNRP’s campaign to suspend all interest and principle payments for the next half year.
“People have lost their jobs, so it would be best for the banks to suspend collection until the outbreak is over,” he said.
“However, we have no choice because [the bank] won’t agree.”
Sean Vy said he is working as hard as he can to pay off his debts, leaving him with barely enough food on the table.
Attempts by RFA to reach government spokesman Phay Siphan for comment on the CNRP campaign and the issue of loan repayments went unanswered Thursday.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace (PDP-Center), told RFA that he has urged the government to assist those people in need to prevent them from going broke during the pandemic.
Uptick in harassment
The launch of the CNRP campaign came as party activists still in Cambodia reported an increase of police surveillance and intimidation, which they said followed Hun Sen’s call on authorities to arrest more opposition members on charges of incitement.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, Sou Yan, the former CNRP councilor of the commune seat of Tboung Khmum province, said several plainclothes officers took pictures of him and his home a day earlier without providing a reason. He said that a handful of other activists have also faced similar harassment.
“This kind of thing is the same as what they did to me last year—they asked me to defect [to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)] and promised to give me a position, but when I refused, they arrested me,” he said.
Sou Yan said that he and other activists have not reported the incidents to local authorities because they have “lost faith” in the police, citing political discrimination.
In September 2017 CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested over an alleged plot to overthrow the government and his party was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to ban the CNRP was part 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 named Tun Nimol, who is based in Kandal province, said he fled his home amid surveillance by the police and that his family had asked him not to return because they fear he will be arrested.
Tun Nimol urged authorities to stop monitoring him and to publicly state that he will not be arrested so that he can return home.
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun denied that police had surveilled the activists, suggesting instead that they “might have done something illegal and are afraid of their own shadows.”
“I wonder why they thought police were spying on them,” he said. “If they’ve done nothing wrong, they shouldn’t have to worry.”
However, Soeung Sen Karuna, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA his organization has received information that police are indeed monitoring CNRP activists.
He called such actions a form of “intimidation and restriction of political rights,” noting that authorities have continued to arrest CNRP members while 17 former and active opposition officials and supporters have been the victims of assault by unidentified men since the new year, and no arrests have been made in any of the cases.
“If the threats continue, this will discourage people from participating in politics,” he said.
“The activists are concerned. There should be space for freedom in a democratic country.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.