UN envoy to assess Cambodia’s human rights protections

Visit comes amid arrests and a blocked march ahead of Human Rights Day.
By RFA Khmer
2023.12.06
UN envoy to assess Cambodia’s human rights protections Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, speaks during a press conference in Phnom Penh on Aug. 26, 2022. He is currently in Cambodia for a five-day visit.
(Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Updated at 10:36 am ET, Dec. 7, 2023

A U.N. official is in Cambodia for a five-day visit to assess its protection of human rights and freedom of expression ahead of this weekend’s International Human Rights Day.

On Wednesday, as Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai national and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, kicked off his visit, police broke up a planned march by monks and youths from Siem Reap to the capital of Phnom Penh.

And in nearby Banteay Meanchey province, police arrested four people at the offices of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or LICADHO, the rights group told RFA.

During his Dec. 4-8 visit, Muntarbhorn is scheduled to meet with the government, human rights defenders, civil society organizations, youth groups, ethnic minority workers, journalists and media representatives, experts, diplomats, U.N. agencies and other stakeholders.

It comes about 100 days after Prime Minister Hun Manet took office, replacing his father who had ruled the country since 1985. 

Opposition leaders and domestic and international civil society groups say that since taking office, Hun Manet has not been able to better administer democracy, respect for human rights, social crises and economic problems.

The visit is important because the special rapporteur will also raise the issue of rights activists, land activists, unions, and journalists in discussions with the government, Chhorn Sokunthea, the Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, told RFA.

"I do not expect any improvement because I see that recently, especially in 2023, Cambodia has a lot of issues related to the decline of press freedom, such as shutting down the independent press,” she said.

March blocked

A group of monks, members of civil society groups and youth had planned a walk as a peaceful demonstration that would take them on a 300-kilometer (185-mile) trip to Freedom Park in the capital by Sunday, Human Rights Day.

But more than 20 police officers prevented the marchers from leaving the town, saying the march was illegal. 

The group said that they had submitted a letter of notification to the Ministry of Interior and the Siem Reap provincial authorities before starting their pilgrimage, making it entirely legal.

"Legally, we informed them 24 hours before the march, and had less than 200 people, … so no one should be stopping us,” Ros Sotha, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Actions Committee, told RFA. 

“The point is that we are following the law,” he said. “The state [agents] always accuse civil society groups of doing the wrong thing, but this is not the case.”

RFA was not able to reach Siem Reap Provincial Hall nor government spokesman Pen Bona for comment.

Foursome detained

Meanwhile, police in northwestern Cambodia briefly arrested four people who had visited LICADHO offices to obtain legal advice in connection with the case of Kang Saran, who was jailed for criticizing the government. The detainees were his wife Hang Trip, his daughter Seng Chantha and two of his neighbors.

LICADHO staff said the police entered the office without a warrant, and when asked, one officer said they just carried out orders from high up.

All four were released the same day, said Phon Chhin, the group’s provincial for Banteay Meanchey province, told RFA.

One of the people who was detained said once they were taken to the police station, an officer said there was a small complaint against them, and then checked their cell phones without giving any reason. After that, the officers told the four they had been brought to the station because their boss wanted to give them gifts, said the person, who asked not to be identified.

They were each of them the equivalent of about US$25 in cash, a bag of rice and a box of instant noodles, she said.

Phon Chhin said the officer was likely lying and that his explanation was unreasonable.


Hundreds celebrate

Ahead of Human Rights Day, in the northern province of Preah Vihear, about 100 villagers, farmers and environmental activists gathered, saying they want to see the authorities stop allowing the powerful to exploit the land and natural resources, and respect human rights.

Hing Yoeun, who attended the celebration, said that attendees wanted to honor Human Rights Day and to promote the importance of protecting natural resources. He urged the relevant authorities to stop land encroachment and effectively prevent logging in Prey Lang.

The forest is a protected area, but illegal logging there is widespread.

“The local authorities have to participate in disseminating the messages of protection of our Prey Lang forest with honesty,” said Hing Yoeun.

Heng Kimhong, director of the Cambodian Youth Network’s Research and Advocacy Program, said that understanding the fundamental rights of citizens is important to prevent abuse from the rich and the powerful.

“The importance of planting democracy and human rights starts with the local people because they are vulnerable people,” he said. “If they don’t understand their human rights, they can be abused easily [in the process of] any development in their areas.”

Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

Updates details about foursome arrested.

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