Scores of civil society groups in Cambodia on Monday condemned the arrest of union leader 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.
Rong Chhun was officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh Saturday, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border.
His arrest and formal charging prompted protests over the weekend and again on Monday in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, where he faces two years in prison if convicted.
The charge “is a clear violation of the unionist’s right to freedom of expression,” the 141 groups said in a joint statement, noting that hours before his arrest he had given an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service denying that he had been spreading false information about alleged land loss along the border a week earlier.
Rong Chhun, the outspoken president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and a former member of the country’s National Election Committee, has been arrested twice before—once in October 2005 over comments he made about a border agreement with Vietnam, and again in January 2014 while calling for the release of demonstrators detained during protests over the 2013 national election.
A member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC)—an umbrella NGO of unions representing teachers, workers, farmers, and students—Rong Chhun last week had joined a group of more than 200 garment workers who gathered to submit a petition outside the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen to ask for his help following their factory’s closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“After more than a decade of harassment by authorities, this latest arrest of a respected union leader is a direct threat to every Cambodian who exercises their constitutional right to freely express their beliefs without having to fear a midnight visit by police and years lost in prison,” the groups said Monday.
“We call on the government and the court to uphold their obligations to guarantee freedom of expression under the constitution and international law and immediately drop all charges and release Rong Chhun.”
On July 20, Rong Chhun had visited Trapeang Phlong commune, in Tbong Khmum province’s Ponhea Kraek district, where Cambodians claimed recently placed border posts had caused them to lose land to neighboring Vietnam.
The following day, he issued a statement on behalf of the Cambodia Watchdog Council in which he cited irregularities with the placement of border posts 114 to 119 that resulted in the loss of “hundreds of hectares” (one hectare = 2.5 acres) of ancestral land belonging to area farmers.
On Friday, Cambodia’s official Cambodia Border Committee rejected Rong Chhun’s claims that any farmers had lost land, saying his organization had disseminated “fake news” based on “groundless accusations.”
Other calls for release
The call to release Rong Chhun was joined on Monday by the Belgium-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and ITUC Asia-Pacific, whose Cambodian council is chaired by the union leader.
The groups noted that his arrest took place against the background of his recent trade union activities and criticism of the government’s response to the coronavirus.
In one case, they said, Rong Chhun had recently demanded that the government release four members of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA)—which he formerly led—who were detained for making comments on public health issues and teaching online during outbreak-related school closures.
“Rong Chhun as well as the trade unionists detained and sentenced for exercising their right to free expression must be released,” the groups said in a statement.
“The ITUC and ITUC-AP urge the government of Cambodia to immediately drop all charges against Rong Chhun and the detained trade unionists, and to commit to respect fundamental rights and freedoms under the international human rights treaties.”
The banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) also condemned the arrest in an appeal for international pressure to secure Rong Chhun’s “unconditional and immediate release.”
“Rong Chhun has not committed any crime, but has done what a labor and human rights leader should do—meet the concerned farmers on their lands, talk about their grievances and stand up loudly for their rights based on the provided evidences,” the party said in a statement.
“Hun Sen’s regime continues to use the law as a tool of absolute oppression of those who defend the rights of the citizens,” it added.
“Coordinated international action is needed and those who oppress the Cambodian citizens and their rights should not go unpunished.”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said the government wanted to find a way to legitimize arresting Rong Chhun, particularly after he wrote to Hun Sen last month calling on the government to proactively address issues that the European Union has said prompted it to end a preferential trade scheme with Cambodia.
The EU in mid-February announced plans to suspend tariff-free access to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on democracy and human rights—a move that would reinstate tariffs on garments and footwear beginning Aug. 12, unless it is overturned by the bloc’s governments or its parliament.
Hun Sen has said that EU demands to maintain the EBA are unreasonable and an encroachment on Cambodia’s internal affairs.
“They were waiting, I’m sure, for him to do something that then would justify them to arrest him, and it’s hard for them to arrest somebody for an EBA statement because, of course, they know that the European Union would get very angry,” Robertson told RFA.
“So, I think they probably waited until he spoke about something else, and in this case the border issue is the thing he spoke about. I think their actions against him are not just about the border issue, but about all the things that Rong Chhun has been saying.”
‘Trust the government’
But ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Eysan defended Rong Chhun’s arrest Monday and threatened to suppress any protests that lead to social unrest.
“Rong Chhun wants to be hero and now he has become one—for the unlawful insurgents,” he said, referring to the CNRP.
“This is a political game they are creating. Even while the situation in Cambodia is good, he did something unlawful to get himself arrested to show foreigners that the Cambodian government will arrest people [and call it a human rights violation].”
Sok Eysan rejected any claim that the government “is afraid of Rong Chhun leading a demonstration as the EBA is withdrawn.”
Speaking to RFA on Monday, Kuy Pisey, vice president of the Cambodia Border Committee, urged the public to “trust the government” on its border demarcation work.
“Some dissenting people refuse to understand the issue,” she said.
“We are trying to explain, like we did in response to Rong Chhun’s statement, that our territory is not being lost [to Vietnam].”
The CWC says that farmers are losing land because Cambodia is demarcating the border based on a 1985 treaty from Vietnam’s 1979-89 occupation of the country following its ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Unresolved border issues between Cambodia and Vietnam, former French colonies from the 1860s to 1954, have sparked incidents in the past, with the construction by Vietnam of military posts in contested areas quickly challenged by Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh.
A joint communique signed by Cambodia and Vietnam in 1995 stipulates that neither side can make any changes to border markers or allow cross-border cultivation or settlement pending the resolution of outstanding border issues.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.