More than 300 Cambodian-Australians gathered in Sydney on Friday to protest Prime Minister Hun Sen’s human rights record as the Cambodian leader prepared for a special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to be held over the weekend.
Buddhist monks, Cambodian community leaders, Australian MP for Victoria State Hong Lim, and Bou Rachana — the wife of murdered Cambodian political analyst Kem Ley — led protesters in condemning Hun Sen for his government’s crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the media, and civil society ahead of Cambodia’s general election in July.
Protesters also called for the release of CNRP President Kem Sokha — who was arrested in September and charged with “treason” — and other political prisoners, as well as the reinstatement of the CNRP, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November for its alleged part in a plot to topple the government.
The group carried signs that said “Hun Sen, you’re fired” and “An end to Hun Sen and authoritarianism,” demanding that the assets of Cambodia’s strongman and his “cronies” be frozen and a return of “true democracy” to the country after his 33 years in rule.
They also pledged to proceed with plans to burn Hun Sen in effigy as part of a mock funeral procession on Saturday during the first day of the March 17-18 ASEAN summit, despite threats the Cambodian prime minister made last month to use violence against anyone who dared do so.
Cambodia’s government-aligned Fresh News media ignored Friday’s protest and instead reported that Australia pledged a grant of U.S. $68 million in development aid to Cambodia during an official bilateral meeting between Hun Sen and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull, quoting Cambodian delegate Kuo Kim Hourn.
Turnbull praised the “progress” being made by ASEAN members, the delegate said, and called for greater cooperation between his country and the Southeast Asian region in the name of peace and stability.
The report also published extensive photos of a 40-minute get-together between Hun Sen and what it said were some 800 of his Cambodian supporters from Australia and New Zealand.
While this weekend’s summit will feature topics as diverse as counter-terrorism, trade liberalization and tensions in the South China Sea, observers have urged its host to raise the poor human rights records of ASEAN nations including Cambodia, saying that failing to do so would give their leaders a free pass.
Hun Sen has suggested that Australia should thank him for agreeing to attend the summit, which he said “would be meaningless” without him, and warned that he has the power to veto any joint communiqué issued at the end of the ASEAN gathering.
On Friday, Chheang Vannarith, an associate fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen doesn’t need to threaten the blocking of a joint statement because “Australia will not raise Cambodia’s issues [of human rights abuses] during a multilateral meeting.”
He also chastised the Cambodian leader for speaking from “emotion,” instead of “thinking strategically,” while representing his country’s interests diplomatically.
Heng Sreang, a Cambodian social and political commentator, told RFA that Hun Sen’s threats of beating protesters who burn his image “are bad for the country.”
“The subsequent tit-for-tat comes off as a loss for the nation’s image within the region and on the international stage,” he said, although he acknowledged that a democratic society should provide for freedom of expression.
Also on Friday, while speaking with supporters in Sydney, Hun Sen claimed that RFA Khmer Service reporter Chun Chanboth — also known as Vuthy Huot — contacted his son, Lt. Gen. Hun Maneth, and Lt. Gen. Mao Sophann in Australia to request their protection from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which the prime minister alleged was responsible for the murder of Kem Ley.
RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid a government crackdown on the media, and Chun Chanboth and other RFA reporters fled the country, fearing arrest.
Hun Sen said that when Chun Chanboth left Cambodia, he sent messages to Hun Maneth via WhatsApp saying he feared that he would be murdered by agents from the U.S., who Cambodia’s government has accused of assisting the CNRP in trying to take over the country.
“You scold Hun Sen, yet you work with Hun Sen’s son. You should be ashamed of that,” he said.
“You scold me in order to satisfy the U.S., yet at the same time, you are afraid of being murdered by the Americans just like Kem Ley.”
Kem Ley, a popular political commentator, was gunned down in broad daylight in Phnom Penh on July 10, 2016, 36 hours after discussing on an RFA Khmer call-in show a report by the London-based group Global Witness detailing the wealth of Hun Sen’s family.
Though authorities later charged a former soldier with the murder and sentenced him to life in prison, many in Cambodia did not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.
Hun Sen said Friday that he had tried to stay quiet about Chun Chanboth’s communication with his son because the reporter “used to work as a spy and send information to me,” but recently felt the need to disclose it.
Immediately following Hun Sen’s remarks, Fresh News published a screen grab of messages sent between Chun Chanboth and Hun Maneth, apparently to arrange a meeting, although it was not immediately clear what the two intended to discuss.
Meanwhile, two former RFA Khmer Service reporters who were taken into custody by Cambodian authorities on Nov. 14 for “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” were denied bail by the Supreme Court Friday.
Keo Vanny, the lawyer for Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, called the Supreme Court’s decision “unfair,” saying the two men did not commit the crimes they have been charged with and suggesting prosecutors have failed to present evidence that shows they are guilty.
“In the end, the court issued the ruling, but did not present any new evidence,” he said.
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin were arrested by police who initially said they had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. They were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and were formally charged under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code.
In December, Cambodia’s Appeals Court upheld an earlier ruling that denied the two men bail from pre-trial detention in Prey Sar Prison, and they face a possible jail term of up to 15 years if convicted.
Last month, a consortium of journalist organizations, including Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), issued a joint statement calling the charges “inappropriate” and demanded the reporters’ “immediate release.”