As Prime Minister Hun Sen’s elite military bodyguard unit continues to harass the opposition, a group of 36 countries approved a statement criticizing the “current escalation of political tensions” in the country.
The U.S.-backed statement delivered on Wednesday to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva by Ambassador Keith Harper, Washington’s representative on the panel, criticized Hun Sen’s government in general for a legal campaign that appears to target only the political opposition.
“We are deeply concerned about the current escalation of political tensions in Cambodia, which threatens legitimate activities by opposition parties and human rights NGOs,” the statement reads. “There is particular concern about the appearance that legal action is being disproportionately pursued against critics of the government.”
A spokesman for the Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) told RFA that their concern about the human rights situation fails to reflect the reality in Cambodia.
“I think if we compare Cambodia to other countries concerning the human rights situation, it is getting better and the evaluation is inaccurate,” Sok Eysan told RFA.
Hun Sen, his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and government prosecutors are pursuing a number of legal cases in courts they control against high-profile opposition party officials and rights workers, drawing widespread condemnation from the international human rights community as well as from foreign aid donors, excluding China.
‘Campaign of intimidation’
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy has been staying in France or traveling since an arrest warrant was issued for him in November over a 2008 defamation case and he was removed from his office and stripped of his parliamentary immunity. After Sam Rainsy left the country, the CNRP named Kem Sokha its acting president.
Kem Sokha was recently sentenced by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to a five-month prison term for failing to appear in court in a pair of cases associated with an alleged affair between the acting opposition leader and a young hairdresser.
Following Kem Sokha’s conviction, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South East Asia Josef Benedict called on the government to cease its “campaign of intimidation.”
“Cambodia is in crisis with the government engaging in a campaign of intimidation against peaceful political and civil society activists, using frivolous prosecutions designed to punish, isolate and marginalize any peaceful dissent,” he said
Sam Rainsy was also convicted by Phnom Penh Municipal Court in July for defaming National Assembly President Heng Samrin over a video posted on Facebook in 2015 that questioned his patriotism.
Heng Samrin was president of Cambodia from 1979 to 1992, leading a government installed following an invasion by Vietnam that ended the four-year rule of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime. Heng Samrin contended the Facebook statement negatively affected his reputation.
Concern over Kem Ley murder investigation
While the Cambodian government has been zealous in its legal pursuit of opposition politicians, pundit Kem Ley’s two-month-old murder case appears to be languishing.
The popular government critic was gunned down in broad daylight at a convenience store he frequented on July 10. While a former soldier was charged with the crime, many inside and outside Cambodia do not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed over a debt.
Kem Ley’s widow and their children have fled the country in fear of their safety. She criticized the investigation in a Facebook post marking the two-month anniversary of Kem Ley’s murder.
The U.S.-backed statement from Geneva singles out the murder, saying the crime has had a “chilling effect” that silences independent voices in Cambodia.
“We lament the recent murder of commentator and analyst Kem Ley and note the chilling effect this crime has had upon civil society and independent voices in Cambodia,” the statement reads. “We call for a full and transparent investigation into Mr. Ley’s death.”
As international concern builds, Hun Sen appears to be trying to intimidate the CNRP by a nightly deployment troops from the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit. The unit functions as a kind of Praetorian Guard for Hun Sen and his family, and is estimated to be comprised of 3,000 elite troops.
The unit has been linked to a deadly March 1997 grenade attack on the political opposition, and three members of the unit were given light sentences in May after they were convicted of assaulting a pair of opposition lawmakers outside the country’s National Assembly in October.
On Wednesday, unit commander Hing Bun Heang told The Phnom Penh Post the unit was within its “rights to maintain security,” as he criticized the CNRP’s plans to create “insecurity” and “disorder” and warned that the drills would continue.
“Not only last night, but tonight, tomorrow night – and we’ll keep doing it,” he added.
“This exercise is for the security, safety and public order of the people,” Hing Bun Heang said.
The CNRP is planning to mobilize nationwide demonstrations in response to what the party considers a campaign of state-backed legal harassment.
Hun Sen has vowed to crack down on protesters “at any cost,” and the nightly movements appear to be an attempt to intimidate the opposition.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.