Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

As Biden Arrives for Asean Summit, Authorities Surveil Protester’s House

Authorities were stationed outside the house of Friday Women activist Prum Chantha in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tompun II commune on November 12, 2022. Supplied.
Authorities were stationed outside the house of Friday Women activist Prum Chantha in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tompun II commune on November 12, 2022. Supplied.

Activists this week sought the attention of world leaders attending the Asean summit in Phnom Penh, while authorities on Saturday surrounded the home of a protester who has long campaigned for the release of her husband and other jailed opposition members.

As U.S. President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrived in Phnom Penh to attend the Asean summit, some 20 uniformed officers and state security guards were surveilling the home of Prum Chantha, a leader of the Friday Women of Cambodia group, which has for months petitioned foreign embassies for support.

“They come to monitor me because they are afraid I will lead a protest during the arrival of President Joe Biden,” Chantha said.

Her husband Kak Komphear, a former commune councilor in Phnom Penh, was arrested in 2020 and sentenced to six years in prison on incitement and plotting charges in relation to his support for the outlawed opposition CNRP.

Uniformed district security guards were gathered 5 meters from her house in Meanchey district’s Boeng Tompun II commune beginning at 6 a.m., Chantha said. By about 5:30 p.m. several officers were still lingering outside her home, and one told her they would be there until Sunday morning.

“However, I have no plan to protest because I have been protesting for one year and [the U.S. government] already knows our issue,” she said. “Forces are only gathered at my house because I am a group leader.”

Chantha, who stayed home all day, said the surveillance restricted activists’ rights and freedom of movement.

“They are afraid our protesting will lead to a bad country image during the Asean summit,” she said.

Phin Phal, Boeng Tompun II commune police chief, acknowledged that some police and state security guards were deployed to prevent activists from disturbing public order during the summit.

“It does not matter that we have deployed to ensure security because we are afraid they will go anywhere [to protest],” he said. “I just follow the instructions of my superiors.”

Phnom Penh municipal police spokesperson San Sokseyha said during the Asean summit, authorities were focused on ensuring the safety of visiting world leaders — as well as Cambodia’s public image.

“We have focused on the security, safety and the reputation of our country,” he said, before declining to comment further.

Phnom Penh police chief Sar Thet could not be reached.

Am Sam Ath, operations director at human rights group Licadho, said his organization was monitoring police officials’ surveillance of activists, noting that it violated people’s rights and freedom of movement.

Authorities’ claims that their monitoring of activists was to ensure public order was “unreasonable,” Sam Ath said.

Mu Sochua, vice president of the dissolved opposition CNRP, posted photos of uniformed authorities outside Chantha’s house, noting that the surveillance was occurring as Biden arrived in Phnom Penh.

Sochua, a dual Cambodian-American citizen, also said on Twitter that Biden should meet with Friday Women activists as well as striking NagaWorld unionists.

Unionists protest outside the NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2022. CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich

On Friday, strikers outside the NagaWorld casino carried large posters calling for the Malaysian Embassy in Phnom Penh to accept their petition, after the embassy early this year declined to receive it, and urging Asean nations not to trample on rights to freedom of association like the NagaWorld CEO, a Malaysian national.

“I wear traditional clothes and carry these banners to show other countries that come to the Asean summit to help intervene and find a solution for us,” said unionist Chan Sreyroth, who worked at the casino for four years before she was fired last year.

Union members have been protesting for their jobs back for nearly a year, alleging the company behind the only licensed casino in Phnom Penh had targeted unionists in mass layoffs.

Members of advocacy group Khmer Thavrak also sought the attention of visiting world leaders, including Biden, this week.

The group began a weeklong hunger strike on Monday to call for the release of Cambodian-American lawyer Seng Theary, who has been imprisoned for nearly five months, after being sentenced to six years in prison over her opposition activism.

Hun Vannak, a Khmer Thavrak member, told CamboJA he hopes news of the group’s campaign will reach Biden and the U.S. will raise the issue of human rights during the summit.

“After a statement from the U.S. State Department [mentioning concern over Theary’s conviction], we are increasingly hopeful that President Joe Biden will discuss human rights issues related to Seng Theary and other political prisoners with [Prime Minister] Hun Sen,” Vannak said.

Their hunger strike this week was made more difficult by authorities monitoring them while they campaigned at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, he said. One Khmer Thavrak member was hospitalized, while another experienced stomach illness.

Vannak said he did not expect their campaign to have immediate results, but the action could raise awareness among the public and leaders from the U.S. and Asean nations.

“We do not expect the government to provide us with a solution any time soon, but what we are doing now is expected to have a positive impact in our society,” he said.

In a letter addressed to Biden and dated Wednesday, opposition Candlelight Party president Teav Vannol appealed to the U.S. president to urge the Cambodian government to “stop all kinds of political persecutions, harassments, [and] intimidations,” release “prisoners of conscience without conditions” and “revive democracy” ahead of next year’s national elections.

Thach Setha, Candlelight’s vice president, told CamboJA that party leaders had no plans to meet Biden during his visit to Cambodia, but said the U.S. should leverage its position as a world power and signatory of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement to “uphold democracy.”

“I hope that after the Asean summit, there will be a change in the situation in our Cambodia,” Setha said.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters prior to Biden’s arrival on Saturday that the U.S. president was “engaging” with Hun Sen because the prime minister is the host of the Asean summit, just as Biden was meeting with the presidents of Egypt and Indonesia at summits in those countries, before and after his visit to Cambodia.

“He’s going to engage across the board in service of America’s interests and to advance America’s strategic position and our values,” the adviser said.

Sullivan said Biden will discuss with Asean leaders the “need for freedom of navigation,” a reference to the U.S. position on the South China Sea, “lawful, unimpeded commerce,” and coordination in imposing costs and raising pressure on the Myanmar junta.

U.S. President Joe Biden attends Asean-U.S. Summit in Phnom Penh on November 12, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

Biden met with Hun Sen on Saturday afternoon and raised concerns about Ream Naval Base, underscoring the “importance of full transparency” regarding activities by the Chinese military at the base, according to a White House statement.

Both China and Cambodia have repeatedly denied U.S. claims of a secret deal between China and Cambodia that granted China’s military exclusive access to parts of the base.

Asean summit spokesperson Kung Phoak told reporters late Saturday that Cambodia had already answered questions about Ream many times.

“We never hide,” he said. “We already allowed the U.S. to visit the location.”

In June 2021, the U.S. military attaché visited Ream, but said the Cambodian military did not grant U.S. officials “full access” — a charge Cambodian officials denied.

Biden also urged Hun Sen to “reopen civic and political space” before the 2023 elections, and “called for the release of activists detained on politically motivated charges,” including Theary, the White House said.

Phoak said if political activists abuse the law, they must face consequences for their actions.

“When we talk about extending democratic space, and at the same time we allow political activists to do whatever they want, even if it is illegal, I don’t think this democracy will last forever,” he said.

“Democracy in Cambodia is moving step by step, which reflects the real situation of the country and we never go backwards. We push the democratic space more open,” he added.

During a summit speech in Phnom Penh on Saturday, the U.S. president called Asean the “heart” of his administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and said the U.S. was committed to Asean centrality and working with nations in the region to tackle threats against the climate, health security, the rule of law and a rule-based order, and address challenges in Myanmar and the South China Sea.

Earlier in his brief remarks, Biden mistakenly referred to Hun Sen as the prime minister of Colombia.

“I want to thank the prime minister of, from Colombia’s leadership, and as Asean chair, and for hosting all of us,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Sorn Sarath)

Updated on November 12, 2022 with statements from Asean summit spokesperson Kung Phoak.