Cambodia’s government regularly utilized the country’s laws to impinge on fundamental freedoms, rather than to protect them over the past year, according to the latest edition of an annual report compiled by three local rights groups.
The Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project (FFMP) on Wednesday released its Fourth Annual Report of the Cambodia Fundamental Freedoms Monitor, which detailed the state of Cambodia’s freedoms of association, expression, and assembly between April 2019 and March this year.
“In Year Four, the FFMP recorded persistent restrictions to the fundamental freedoms, carried out by national and local authorities, demonstrating a lack of compliance with international human rights law and domestic law,” the initiative’s rights groups Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), the Solidarity Center (SC), and ADHOC said in a joint statement accompanying the release of the report.
“The RGC (Royal Government of Cambodia) appears to utilize laws, not to protect fundamental freedoms, but rather to curtail civic space and restrict the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”
The FFMP said that laws like the Criminal Code, the Law on Telecommunications, the Law on Association and Nongovernmental Organizations (LANGO), and the Law on Peaceful Assembly, amongst others, “continue to be arbitrarily enforced and systematically misapplied” by authorities in curbing
The report, which is based on nearly 1,200 media articles and 120 incident reports, as well as a survey of some 800 people across all 25 provinces and 142 civil society organizations (CSOs) and trade unions, found that the space to exercise fundamental freedoms continued to shrink in Cambodia last year.
It highlighted the “arbitrary” uses of the crimes of defamation, plotting, incitement to commit a felony, and falsifying information under Cambodia’s Criminal Code to “discourage public participation and inhibit the exercise of fundamental freedoms,” and a decrease in the public’s understanding of those freedoms.
In particular, the report noted an ongoing crackdown on political dissent—in large part due to the November 2017 ban on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) over allegations of its involvement in a plot to topple the government—and the silencing of speech, which it said creates an environment of “widespread self-censorship.”
Restrictions and violations
The FFMP, which works in cooperation with the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL), recorded a total of 656 incidents related to the exercise of fundamental freedoms. It said two-thirds of all incidents included one or more restrictions or violations of those freedoms, while 440 involved at least one restriction and 246 involved at least one violation.
In one recent example of what rights groups have decried as an assault on freedom of expression, 17 CNRP activists have been held in pretrial detention at Cambodia’s Prey Sar Prison on charges of “incitement to commit a felony” since early this year after voicing views critical of Hun Sen’s leadership and his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic—most notably in March.
But the FFMP said it had documented 245 restrictions on freedom of expression and 103 violations of the freedom during the reporting period, which also included the summonsing of former opposition members and a crackdown on those voicing support for the return from self-imposed exile of CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy in May and September last year.
It said the government seems to be particularly intolerant of speech regarding its officials, policies, or Hun Sen, “which often results in a lack of public debate on important policy matters.”
The FFMP recorded 338 restrictions and 186 violations of the freedom of association between April 2019 and March 2020, noting peaks again in May during the summonsing of former CNRP members and in September and October ahead of Sam Rainsy’s failed return, but also in July 2019, with restrictions around the anniversary of political commentator Kem Ley’s murder.
The groups noted that restrictions to freedom of association “seem to be often used to target political dissent and to curtail civil society.”
The FFMP said freedom of assembly, which is frequently exercised by those advocating for land rights and by employees calling for rights in the workplace, was “the most protected freedom” during the reporting period, with the fewest number of restrictions and violations.
The groups counted 53 restrictions and 21 violations over the course of 185 assemblies, with peaks in July 2019 around the anniversary of Kem Ley’s death, but also on International Labor Day in May 2019 and during an increase in employee strikes in January this year.
But while government restrictions and violations of fundamental freedoms remained high over the reporting period, the FFMP said that public understanding of the freedoms was also the lowest recorded since the initiative began.
Similarly, the groups said, knowledge of the domestic legal framework governing fundamental freedoms decreased from previous years.
“Individuals continue to believe that laws governing fundamental freedoms are more restrictive than they actually are,” they said.
“This is likely to prevent the full exercise of fundamental freedoms, and deter public participation and civic activity.”
The FFMP said that in compiling its report, it seeks to inform legislative developments that can bring Cambodia’s domestic laws in line with international standards and to create an environment in which civil society can work freely.
“The freedoms of association, assembly, and expression are fundamental for the exercise of all human rights, and paramount to a healthy democracy,” the groups said.
“Without the ability to exercise their fundamental freedoms, citizens of Cambodia and others living in Cambodia, are prevented from being active members of society and prevented from holding rights violators accountable.”
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday, Kata Orn, a spokesman for the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC), rejected the report as “failing to reflect fact.” He denied that Cambodia’s human rights record is getting worse and said the government “implements the law to crack down on crime.”
“Some issues raised in the report are groundless and lack any investigation,” he said.
“[The rights groups] surveyed people and then made assumptions without a proper study. It’s the wrong way to go about an evaluation.”
However, Hun Seanghak, CCHR’s coordinator for the FFMP told RFA that the government’s relentless crackdown on critics and abuse of freedoms through the use of criminal offenses had lowered the public’s understanding of their rights, and led to self-censorship by NGOs and unions.
“The government should consider and accept these findings—we aren’t exaggerating the statistics,” he said.
“The government should study our report and seek solutions to resolve the issues.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.