A group of police officers showed up at the home of detained Cambodian union leader Rong Chhun on Tuesday demanding to speak with members of his family, according to his nephew, who accused authorities of harassment in retaliation for his uncle’s criticism of the government.
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.
The arrest and formal charging of the outspoken president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and former member of the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) 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.
On Tuesday, Rong Chhun’s nephew, Rong Vichea, told RFA’s Khmer Service that a group of some 10 police officers arrived at the family home in the capital and insisted that they question the union leader’s relatives.
“They also asked for the identity of anyone who had come in or out of our house,” he said, adding that while police did not verbally threaten them, “their appearance made us feel intimidated.”
“Please, NGOs, help facilitate uncle Rong Chhun’s release and get him justice.”
Rong Vichea said he had traveled to Prey Sar Prison to visit Rong Chhun, who asked to convey his gratitude to his supporters.
“He said, ‘don’t be intimidated, stay strong, and continue to fight for social justice,’” Rong Vichea said.
On July 20, Rong Chhun—a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC) umbrella NGO of unions representing teachers, workers, farmers, and students—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 CWC 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.”
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.
Threat to Hun Sen
Rong Chhun has been arrested twice before—once in October 2005 over comments he made about a border agreement with Vietnam, which led to a three-month stint in prison, and again in January 2014 while calling for the release of demonstrators detained during protests over the 2013 national election.
He 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.
Experts say Rong Chhun posed a threat to Hun Sen because of his recent activities, which included writing to the prime minister 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.
Rong Chhun has also drawn praise for giving up a position of power with the NEC to return to leading the CCU after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The move to dissolve 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 his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Fresh calls for release
Reports of police intimidation against Rong Chhun’s family came as observers continued to excoriate Cambodia’s government over the union leader’s arrest and demand his release.
His case also received attention from Washington which, in a statement delivered to RFA by the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, said it is “closely following” the situation.
“We have consistently raised concerns with the Cambodian government about taking meaningful steps to reopen the political and civic space,” said Chad Roedemeier, the embassy’s spokesperson.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a strongly worded statement demanding that authorities immediately drop charges and release Rong Chun.
Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said the union leader’s charges appear to be linked to his recent advocacy for the land rights of villagers living near the border with Vietnam, as well as other activities.
“The arrest of Rong Chhun is the latest example of unrelenting government repression against activists trying to protect ordinary Cambodians’ basic rights,” he said.
“The European Union should add this outrage to the long list of rights abuses that need to be resolved in negotiations over ‘Everything But Arms’ trade preferences.”
HRW noted that in recent years, Cambodia’s government has increased its harassment of independent union leaders and labor advocates, including through the 2016 Trade Union Law that the group said has severely curtailed the ability of unions to register, bargain collectively, and represent workers.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen should stop muzzling labor unionists, human rights defenders, and other critics of government policies,” Robertson said.
“Foreign governments should publicly raise the plight of Rong Chhun and jointly appeal to the Cambodian government to put an end to this onslaught on human rights.”
‘A blatant attack’
The growing chorus of voices calling for Rong Chhun’s release was also joined Tuesday by the Global Union Federations, a consortium of global labor organizations which noted in a statement that the former president of the Cambodian Teachers’ Association “has always been at the forefront of struggles for the protection of workers’ rights.”
The groups called Rong Chhun’s arrest amid his trade union activities and criticisms of Cambodia’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic “a blatant attack by the government” on freedoms of expression and association.
They urged the government to follow recommendations by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, including ending harassment of civil society organizations, and allowing peaceful demonstrations and stopping excessive use of force by police monitoring such gatherings.
They also called for several recently passed laws that restrict political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and trade unions to be brought into line with international standards.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.