Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Cambodian rights groups point to worsening restrictions of fundamental freedoms

District security guards carry a protester away from a demonstration marking the Paris Peace Agreements Day outside the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh on October 23. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
District security guards carry a protester away from a demonstration marking the Paris Peace Agreements Day outside the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh on October 23. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

An annual rights report has found, yet again, that Cambodian officials have severely restricted basic civil rights, especially those of freedom of association and expression.

The report, which was publicly released Friday, is the fifth such study published by the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project (FFMP), a joint initiative by local civil society groups the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Adhoc and the Solidarity Center, in cooperation with the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law.

This most recent iteration highlighted several instances of rights violations carried out last year by national and local authorities from April 1 – December 31, 2020. FFMP stated these violations showed non-compliance with both domestic and international human rights law, adding that state officials often weaponized the criminal code to further state aims.

“[Last year] saw an increase in restrictions and violations by the government that impeded the rights of environmental activists and journalists,” wrote the authors of the FFMP report, noting that restrictions of fundamental freedoms occurred in almost every province of Cambodia.

 “Actions by the [Royal Government of Cambodia] continue to undermine the exercise of fundamental freedoms,” the report stated.  “The RGC utilizes laws not to protect fundamental freedoms, but rather to curtail civic space and quash dissent.”

The Cambodian government has repeatedly dismissed such claims as a political fabrication, even though the country has been a de facto one-party state since 2017.

Much of the FFMP study was compiled through analysis of media articles and incident reports, as well as polling and surveying of civil society groups, trade unions and the general public.

The coalition of rights groups recorded a total of 384 incidents related to the exercise of fundamental freedoms, and notably in July witnessed a peak in the state crackdown during a surge in arrests of activists following the arrest of Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions.

Chhun was arrested on July 31 and charged with incitement to disturb social security for remarks he made in an interview with Radio Free Asia. During the interview, Chhun said Vietnamese soldiers had placed border posts at some locations in Tbong Khmum that were 500 meters inside Cambodian territory affecting farmers living along the contentious border.  The interview came in the context of the latest round of border negotiations with Vietnam, a controversial subject in the country on which the government has accepted no opposition.

The report also listed hundreds of cases of people being brought into the criminal system after exercising speech or association rights. This included 215 people summoned, 117 questioned, 85 arrested, 53 charged and 17 convicted for exercising their fundamental freedoms in line with international law. Of these, 57 people were made to thumbprint a contract agreeing not to repeat their exercise of fundamental freedoms.

The report noted 45 of those arrested were affiliates of the CNRP, the main political opposition party of Cambodia that was forcibly dissolved in 2017 after an order by a court allied with the ruling CPP. The report stated CNRP affiliates were the subject of many other restrictions noted in the past year.

Nine of the arrestees belonged to activist group Khmer Thavrak, and three were members of the environmentalist advocacy group Mother Nature Cambodia. 

FFMP found that freedom of association was most frequently restricted and violated, with

188 recorded instances. This coincided with a 6% decline in the percentage of the public who feel free to participate in political activities, a statistic found through polling.

The rights groups also documented 108 restrictions or violations to freedom of expression, 53 percent of which were based in interference with online expression. This tracked with findings of the highest levels of self-censorship among the public in five years of the FFMP reporting, showing a decline in the environment for freedom of peaceful assembly.

Chin Malin, vice president of Cambodian Human Rights Committee, refuted the FFMP report, dismissing it as having been “just copied and pasted” from year-to-year when police officials implemented the law against FFMP’s favored groups.

“They [civil society groups] have ignored or been silent when considering whether police and courts have enough evidence for making the accusation,” he said, characterizing the arrests of activists as based in legal missteps, as opposed to political ones.

“They have failed to consider whether those activities were violating the law, or exercising rights freedom in line with the law accordingly,” he said.

Malin said the report would look the same even if issued four or 10 years in future, implying that the critique of monitoring groups was predetermined.  He accused the rights groups of serving politics and claimed the public would come to question their motives if they continued to release similar reports.

This was not a satisfying answer to the rights groups of FFMP.

Hun Seanghak, a representative of FFMP and project coordinator of fair trials at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said he was disappointed with the government’s complete denial of the findings of reports such as that of the annual study.

“The public will consider that report and whether it has not reflected the reality or not,” Seanghak said. “They can compare it with the events that have been happening.” 

“It is not a good situation that [government] does not recognize itself and the truth,” he continued, adding that in democratic society, fundamental rights and freedoms are an important core of national development.

Korn Chantrea, 29, a villager in Tboung Khmum province, is just one person who has seen the findings of the report played out in real life. She said her husband, Phun Sophal, was arrested in December last year during a land dispute. Though land rights would be a matter for civil courts elsewhere, in Cambodia, where such rights can be a heated political issue, the state often settles matters with criminal charges.

“It is very restricted,” Chantrea said of freedom of expression. “My husband had just protested seeking a resolution over land disputes, then he was jailed.”

  Cheng Sreyny, the wife of imprisoned CNRP activist Ton Nimol who was arrested October 23 on an incitement charge, also told CamboJA she agreed with the findings of the FFMP report.

“How has the right to freedom of expression improved?” she asked. “They [authorities] had restricted and banned us from going out for peaceful protesting.”

Every Friday since last June,  with an online campaign started during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, family members of former CNRP officials have been protesting and demanding the release of their relatives. The demonstrators have also demanded the release of four of their colleagues arrested in late October, including Nimol, for protesting outside the Chinese Embassy.