Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Activists demand Rong Chhun’s release despite Hun Sen’s arrest threat

Rong Chhun's supporters demonstrate outside the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh on August 24. Panha Chhorpoan

A group of activists are continuing to protest for the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun despite a warning from Prime Minister Hun Sen last week that there would be more arrests if the border issue is raised.

Chhun was charged on August 1 with incitement to disturb social security over comments he made in a media interview saying villagers in Tbong Khmum province had lost land to Vietnamese soldiers.

Some 20 protesters and supporters gathered on August 24 to submit a petition at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) to intervene in Chhun’s case. They also attempted to deliver the petition to the Embassy of Japan, but were blocked by police and security guards near Kbal Thnal bridge in Chamkarmon district’s Tonle Bassac commune.

Outside the UN’s office, supporters held signs featuring a photo of Chhun below text saying “Our nation is our issue.”

Em Bunnarith, who worked with Chhun at the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), said August 24 that the recent spate of arrests of Chhun’s supporters was regrettable.

“Our main purpose is to demand the release of Mr. Rong Chhun,” he said.

“Furthermore, we want the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to remind the royal government of Cambodia that it is failing to respect human rights,” Bunnarith said.

“What we are doing is based on the law and the fundamental rights that we have to peacefully assemble, and what we are doing is not related to the border issue as stated in Samdech Hun Sen’s message,” Bunnarith said when asked about Hun Sen’s threat of further arrests over the border issue.

Long Rim, a teacher who joined the event, said Chhun has made sacrifices for the sake of improving teachers’ livelihoods, garment workers, and the nation. Chhun is a former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association union and is head of the CCU.

“We cannot accept the arrest of Rong Chhun,” he said, adding that police officers had unfairly arrested the frequent government critic at night, outside of administrative working hours.

Rim called on the government to release Chhun, as the comments he was apprehended over were based on information he had received from villagers who said they had lost land along the border with Vietnam in Tbong Khmum province.

On August 16, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that more people would be arrested if they dared to raise the issue of lost territory between Cambodia and Vietnam, saying that border issues aren’t a matter of opinion to be advocated for by civil society groups and social or political analysts. 

“Border issues aren’t a joke,” he said. “It will cause a war between Cambodia with the neighboring country through your messages and incitement along the border.”

Speaking at the inauguration of a new water park in Phnom Penh, the prime minister said that in discussing border demarcation, analysts and NGOs have previously accused the government of treason.

“You have accused us of betraying the nation” despite the fact that the demarcation of the Cambodia-Vietnam border had been approved by the National Assembly, the Senate, and the King, he said.

“I send a message: As many as you come out [we] will arrest all related to the border issue,” Hun Sen continued. “Do not accuse Hun Sen’s government of being a dictatorship because it isn’t opinion or advocacy.”

“Some people have raised [ border demarcation] as an expression of opinion,” the premier said. “[There is] no opinion, it is entirely carried out under the law and there is no need for a referendum,” he said, adding that the National Assembly had signed two border treaties with Vietnam in 2005 and 2019. 

“Now, everyone who talks about that issue will be arrested for a red-handed crime,” he said, bringing up the arrest of opposition lawmakers Hong Sok Hour and Um Sam An in 2015 and 2016.

On August 18, 80 civil society groups and communities issued a joint statement, strongly condemning the Cambodian authorities’ use of violence against peaceful demonstrators and the recent arrests.

Adhoc, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, Licadho, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut and more signed on to the statement.

“It is not a crime to speak out against your friends’ arrest. It is not a crime to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people in your community and demand justice,” read the joint statement.

It said that all Cambodians have the right to peacefully protest without being shoved, beaten or dragged off by police. 

“We call on the government to immediately release those arrested, drop charges against them and fully respect the Cambodian people’s rights to free expression and assembly,” it said.

However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said August 24 that although people have the right to submit petitions to the UNOHCHR, under the law, no international organization can pressure the courts to drop charges or demand the release of a prisoner.

“The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has no mandate or power to meddle in the internal affairs of state sovereignty,” he said, adding that the government is ready to explain to the UN its decision to arrest Rong Chhun, if necessary. 

“It is the implementation of the law, and the government is taking action on those cases to maintain social security and public order,” Malin said. 

Malin also defended police and security officials, saying they have not used unnecessary force against peaceful demonstrators and have only cracked down on protests that were not permitted by authorities and had affected public order.

“The message of those civil society groups has no influence on the court and it is also not a way to support the defendants based on the law,” he added.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said he was concerned by the declining state of fundamental freedoms in Cambodia. 

“I think that [the arrests] are restricting the fundamental rights of people to make demands and protest peacefully,” he said.

“We have gradually seen more arrests of those who dare to talk about border issues, but for human rights, those constructive criticisms are part of the peoples’ freedom to exercise their opinion,” Sam Ath said.

Political analyst Meas Nee said he doubted the government’s motive for discouraging people to talk about border issues between Cambodia and Vietnam, noting that all Cambodia citizens have an obligation to analyze and protect their territorial sovereignty.

“I have seen that talking about border issues like Mr. Rong Chhun doesn’t amount to incitement,” he said.

Nee said that it is not an incitement case unless an individual person who had visited the border decided to rebel and encourage others to join in.

“I also do not understand why people who have raised border issues have been arrested,” Nee said.

“Why can’t Cambodian people talk about border issues? he asked. “What is the mystery behind the border issue that means we can’t talk about the border issue, which is the right of all citizens?” 

Chhun was arrested on July 31 and charged the following day with incitement to disturb social security based on remarks he made in an interview with Radio Free Asia saying that Vietnamese soldiers have placed border posts 500 meters into Cambodian territory and expelled villagers from their land.

Police detained Khmer Win Party President Soung Sophorn on August 14 for allegedly distorting information related to border issues and placed him in pretrial detention on August 15 after charging him with incitement to disturb social security.

A total of six activists have been arrested and charged while protesting to demand the release of Chhun, while six more have been detained and later released..