More than 200 rights advocates gathered Friday in Phnom Penh’s new Freedom Park to demand the government restore human rights and democracy in Cambodia, decrying what they said was increasing repression.
The occasion was the 73rd anniversary of International Human Rights Day, and the activists said there was little cause to celebrate.
Ny Sokha, president of local rights group Adhoc, said Cambodia’s human rights landscape had deteriorated over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to growing numbers of rights violations.
“We are concerned about threats to the rights of expression, assembly and political participation,” he said. “We are also concerned about the continuous arrests and violence against activists and politicians, while authorities have yet to find their perpetrators or killers.”
The environmental activist Sun Ratha, a member of the group Mother Nature who was released from prison in early November after five months detainment due to her advocacy, said environmental activists are never encouraged by authorities but are instead banned and threatened.
“I urge the government to drop the charges against environmental activists as well as other activists who have exercised their rights, such as youth and land victims,” she said on Friday.
Fellow environmental activist Chhoeun Daravy, of youth group Khmer Thavarak, who was also released from prison the same day as Ratha, said their rights work has led to many threats from the authorities.
“There are a lot of social issues, such as forestry and social injustices, that can discourage the spirit of young people who participate in areas of social concern,” she said.
The Friday gathering came about a month after the rapid November release from prison of more than a dozen political activists within the same week. Many of those who were released had been held on charges of incitement and other speech-related allegations. In 2020, police arrested 158 Cambodians due to their online expression, according to a recent report from rights group Licadho, with 73 of those people still imprisoned by the end of that year.
The Licadho report also said the government uses its extensive surveillance network to crack down on online expression, mostly from activists, with both harassment and criminal accusations.
The civil society outcry comes as Cambodia also faces mounting diplomatic pressure from the US to address what the US Department of Commerce has described as systematic state corruption and human rights abuse.
Also in November, the US House of Representatives approved a bill that would enact increased economic sanctions against “senior Cambodian government, military, or security forces officials” deemed responsible for human rights violations. The sanctions would also extend to entities controlled or owned by such individuals, including the blocking of assets in the US and restricting entry there of sanctioned individuals.
Last week, the US Commerce Department announced new restrictions on trade with Cambodia and on Wednesday declared an arms embargo on the kingdom.
On Friday, a post on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page called on military officials to destroy or otherwise stop using all US weapons and military equipment.
The Cambodian government has denied that rights abuses have increased, with a state spokesperson stating the opposite was true.
Chin Malin, vice president of the Cambodian Human Right Committee and the spokesman of the Justice Ministry, said there was no need to restore the civil space in Cambodia, as the rights situation is actually getting better. At the same time, he said the government recognizes the rights situation needs to be improved.
“What we need to do is to improve the situation for human rights and democracy in Cambodia. There remain challenges, so we must address the challenges,” he said. “Legal action against those who violate the law is not the abuse of human rights and restriction of freedoms, but the implementation of law in democratic society.”
Malin further said the new US sanctions were the result of geopolitical concerns with China.
“The issues of rule of law, human rights and democracy are just the excuse to interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs. The US is implementing a double standard between Cambodia and their allies, where the situation of human rights and democracy is worse than Cambodia.”
Local non-governmental organizations and labor unions reject that argument, and have called on the government to open space for political rights for the 2022 commune election and 2023 national election.
Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said 27 journalists and human rights activists have been awarded human rights recognitions due to their work for society as a whole. However, they were not allowed to handle the awards at new Freedom Park during the event.
Yeang Sothearin, a former reporter at Radio Free Asia and one of the awardees, said these recognitions are encouragement by civil society to journalists and activists who have been persecuted by the authorities and are facing court charges.
“For me, this award is a huge encouragement, and it shows the attention of civil society to what we have done in the past,” he said “It also reveals that what we have done is recognized by society, which is different from what the authorities accuse us of.”