Prime Minister Hun Sen on October 21 warned of a crackdown against demonstrators who join events to mark Paris Peace Agreements Day on October 23, after CNRP acting President Sam Rainsy called for a protest outside the Chinese Embassy while civil society groups are planning a 1,000-strong rally at Freedom Park.
The prime minister’s reaction comes after Rainsy published a post on his Facebook on October 19 calling on Cambodians around the world to hold demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy or consulate in their city “to protest against China’s military presence on Cambodia’s soil.”
Rainsy said the protests will be held on October 23 to mark the 29th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, which ended the conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam. The leader of the opposition party, which was dissolved by a Supreme Court order in 2017, said that in addition to Phnom Penh, protests would be held in six US cities, three Canadian cities and three Australia cities, in addition to Brussels, Geneva, Marseille and Paris in Europe, and Seoul, Tokyo and Wellington.
“You are under control. I send a message, please don’t come to submit a petition on October 23,” Hun Sen said in a speech at an event to donate food supplies to victims of flooding in Banteay Meanchey province.
He warned that “demonstrators have to be careful” while protesting or submitting a petition at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh.
“Thus, I send a message to [demonstrators], don’t disturb [our country] since our country is suffering due to floods and Covid-19,” he said.
“It was ordered from abroad,” Hun Sen said, referring to the embassy protest.
Despite the warning of a crackdown, civil society groups have said they are expecting 1,000 participants to join an event to mark Paris Peace Agreements Day at Freedom Park in Russei Keo district, although Phnom Penh City Hall has said they will only permit 120 attendees.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, which is joining the event, said civil society groups would stick to their plan to have 1,000 participants.
“Our stance is the same – [1,000 people] will join together at Freedom Park,” he said, noting that the demonstration was legal according to the Law on Peaceful Assembly and the Constitution.
“We are just marking the anniversary, not demonstrating or demanding anything,” Senkaruna said. “It is a violation of the Constitution if a peaceful demonstration is cracked down on by the government.”
He said that the government had violated its obligations as a signatory to the Paris Peace Agreements by regularly disrespecting human rights and democracy. As examples, he pointed to the dissolution of the opposition CNRP in 2017, ongoing stifling of critical voices, authorities’ use of violence against activists, and the government’s boycott of international observers in the 2018 national election.
The Paris Peace Agreements were signed on October 23, 1991, in Paris by 19 countries, and led to the establishment of the UN’s Traditional Authority in Cambodia, which set the groundwork for the country’s first national election in 1993 and the adoption of the Constitution.
The signatories to the agreement promised to promote and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, as well as to follow a liberal democratic political system.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey could not be reached for comment.
Srun Srorn, a Paris Peace Agreement activist, said he was determined to join the Freedom Park event.
“We will still hold the event because it is the obligation of citizens to demand the [government] implement the law, protect Cambodia’s territory, and maintain security and public order for the Khmer people,” he said.
He added that if it weren’t for the Paris Peace Agreements, Cambodia would not have its Constitution, adopted in 1993, and would have no elections and no forum to debate human rights and democracy.
“Even if there is a ban by the government, we will still do it, because we are talking about laws, not about ways to rebel or destroy the nation,” Srorn said.
However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin rejected claims by NGOs that the government had failed to uphold the Paris Peace Agreements’ guarantees to fundamental freedoms.
He explained that the law is used to punish anyone who commits a crime, including politicians, civil society groups or journalists, in order to maintain security and public order.
“The law is enforced against any person who has committed offense,” he said. “It does not mean there is restriction or persecution of basic rights and freedoms, because using your rights to infringe on other people’s rights isn’t exercising your rights in social democracy. A person who has committed an offense will be held responsible according to the law.”
“By raising [this issue], civil society groups are just protecting their group based on their own political agenda,” Malin added.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that based on Hun Sen’s remarks, opposition leader Sam Rainsy still seems to be considered a threat to the prime minister’s power despite the ongoing crackdown on the CNRP.
“Because he is used to using these repressive measures to preserve his power and after he recently reiterated his commitment to them … it would be difficult for him to change, to back down and tolerate any exercise of the right to freedom of expression and of assembly, which could only boost Sam Rainsy’s popular support further,” Mong Hay said.
Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court scheduled a hearing on November 11 for Rainsy and eight other former CNRP lawmakers who were charged in September 2019 with attempting to overthrow the government.
On October 20, police officials at the Interior Ministry’s Terrorism Department posted a court warrant at the former headquarters of the CNRP in Meanchey district, summoning the eight accused – Sam Rainsy, his wife Tioulong Saumura, Eng Chhay Eang, Mu Sochua, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, Men Sothavrin, and Nuth Romduol. It also listed the charges against them according to articles 27 and 451 the Criminal Code.
According to Article 451, an attack consists of one or more acts of violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom or violate the integrity of the national territory. It carries a possible prison sentence of 15 to 30 years. Article 27 lays out the definition of the word “attempt.”
All nine of the accused are currently living outside of the country to avoid arrest.
Rainsy could not be reached for comment.
Former CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua denied the charges brought against her by the court.
“These are groundless accusations,” she said via email from the US where she lives in exile. “Our return to Cambodia is to restore democracy and protect human rights. We have no arms but our firm determination to find justice for our people.”
In November last year, Cambodian armed forces were deployed along the country’s border in the days ahead of Rainsy’s planned November 9 return with other senior party leaders.