The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has charged outspoken union leader Rong Chhun for incitement to commit a felony over comments he made about demarcation border posts between Cambodia and Vietnam, which the government has said is disinformation.
The charge comes after Radio Free Asia (RFA) aired a story on the evening of July 31 regarding the Cambodia-Vietnam border, in which Chhun is quoted saying that Vietnamese soldiers have invaded Cambodian territory and expelled villagers from their land in Tboung Khmum province’s Ponheakrek district.
Municipal court spokesman Kuch Kimlong said via telegram that Deputy Prosecutor Seng Heang had charged Rong Chhun and had passed on the case to the investigating judge.
“Rong Chhun has been charged with incitement to disturb social security under Article 495 of Code of Criminal,” he said, adding that the case has been sent to the investigating judge to finalize the charge.
“What we have raised is the true information that villagers claimed they have lost their land because [Vietnam] demarcated into Cambodia’s land about 500 meters,” Chhun said on air with RFA.
“Based on this, I went down to observe along the border of Cambodia and Vietnam [we] didn’t find any border posts moved to Yuon’s land, most posts were moved to our land,” he said. “We didn’t disseminate the fake news. We question what are the benefits received from publishing fake news.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet said August 1 that Chhun was arrested the previous day at about 9:30pm at his home in Meanchey district.
“It is over the [border issue] because he made comments exaggerating information which caused a disruption to social security,” he said.
In an interview with a local online news source he said Chhun’s arrest was related to Article 495 incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security and shall be punishable by imprisonment of six months to two years.
The Joint Border Affairs Committee issued a statement on July 31 rejecting the comments made by Chhun, and calling them disinformation.
“[They] have intentionally fabricated the issue and published fake news with ill intentions aimed to confuse public opinions… with baseless accusations on border affairs and the royal government losing territory,” the statement says.
Border Affairs Committee chairman Var Kimhong could not be reached for comment.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc said on August 1, that the government’s crackdown on critical and dissenting voices was worrisome.
“It is threatening to silence freedom of speech for a person who dares to criticize the wrongdoings of the government leadership,” he said.
Senkakruna said that Chhun is active in social issues, politics and border issues, and recently has also recently been helping garment workers who are struggling to receive unpaid wages and benefits.
“I think that this is also a reason they have arrested him to silence his critical voice,” he said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said police officers had followed the law in arresting Chhun.
“The arrest does not go against procedures because [he committed] an obvious crime,” he said.
“The incitement and exaggerating information involving border issues is a serious danger to the country, particularly affecting national security and diplomatic relations with the neighbor country,” Malin said.
“This case does not restrict his right to freedom of expression,” he added. “It is an implementation of the law.”
Rong Chhun, is the former president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, and was formerly a member of the National Election Committee.
In 2018, he was among six union leaders who were given two and a half year suspended sentences for “intentional acts of violence with aggravating circumstances”, for their alleged involvement in protests on Veng Sreng Boulevard in Phnom Penh that turned violent.