Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the reinstatement of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community (CCFC) and for criminal charges against three of its members to be dropped, after the Interior Ministry temporarily suspended the group earlier this month.
“We have seen the benefits the association has done, so I encourage the association to continue its activity for our people’s benefit,” Hun Sen wrote on Telegram on Saturday after meeting with CCFC president Thang Savoeun and two other members. “The association has to pay more attention to the protection of workers in the agriculture sector.”
In May, police detained and questioned 17 people who were attending a CCFC workshop in Ratanakiri. Savoeun and his colleagues Nhel Pheap and Than Hach were arrested soon after on plotting and incitement charges. Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak accused CCFC members of plotting a “peasant revolution.”
The prime minister instructed Justice Minister Keut Rith to work with the Ratanakiri provincial court to clear the charges, and to allow the group to restore its activities as soon as possible, he said in the message.
Savoeun told CamboJA that his meeting with the prime minister was focused on continuing the cooperation between the association and government. He told the prime minister that no CCFC donors have ordered the group to “provoke incitement,” Savoeun said.
They did not discuss politics or defecting from the ruling CPP, he said.
“I went to meet with Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] not to take a position in the government or any role in politics [with the ruling CPP],” he said. “My purpose for asking Samdech to intervene is to have all charges against us dropped. The important thing is to reopen the association.”
The prime minister instructed CCFC to represent farmers by “collecting all their issues and submitting petitions to provincial authorities and the relevant ministries,” because the government “does not want to see any image of protesting,” Savoeun added.
According to Savoeun, Hun Sen told him CCFC could go directly to him with their problems if the authorities do not resolve them.
“It is a green light that we can direct [our concerns] to him [Hun Sen],” CCFC acting director Meun Ratana said.
He said he can accept Hun Sen’s request to inform authorities of farmers’ complaints because the group works with farmers to help them get benefits. But he also sees some downsides to the prime minister’s ask.
“If villagers do not gather to protest and they [authorities] resolve the issues, it [Hun Sen’s request] will be helpful, “ he said. However, “in the case that they were prevented from gathering, but [authorities] do not resolve their issues, this is restricting the rights of villagers and their freedom of expression.”
CCFC plans to have additional meetings with their executive team once the court officially drops all of the charges against Savoeun and the two other staff members.
“[CCFC] will change some structures of the association’s leadership,” Ratana said.
Savoeun said that he did not bring up Chan Vibol during the meeting, an independent researcher who also attended the workshop and is facing the same charges. Vibol is still at large.
Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said that the ministry is reviewing the procedure of the law for this case.
Ratanakiri court spokesperson Keo Pisoth said “the investigation judge is working on that case.”