Supporters and activists are continuing to protest for the release of prominent union leader Rong Chhun, calling on international communities, notably countries that are signatories to the Paris Peace Agreements, to pressure the government into securing the release of Chhun and other activists who were jailed last month.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month charged outspoken union leader Rong Chhun for incitement to disturb social security over comments he made regarding border demarcation posts between Cambodia and Vietnam. A dozen more activists who participated in protests demanding Chhun’s release were also arrested, with six of them facing the same incitement charge, including Khmer Win Party leader Soung Sophorn.
On September 1, some 50 of Chhun’s supporters submitted a petition at the Japanese and German embassies seeking help for the jailed activists, specifically targeting embassies of countries that signed on to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, which marked the end of conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Police officers and Chamkarmon district security guards blocked the group as they attempted to march from the Japanese Embassy to the German Embassy, prompting them to instead board tuk-tuks and motorbikes to reach their destination.
After submitting the petition at the German Embassy, Ouk Chhayavy, president of Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association who joined the protest, said she hoped international communities would be able to help secure the release of the activists.
“The [German] embassy has warmly promised us that they will make efforts to negotiate between the governments of Germany and Cambodia to release Rong Chhun and the other jailed activists,” she said.
“We see that countries that are part of the Paris Peace Agreement love democracy,” Chhayavy continued. “They joined the signing of the treaty together and showed they will protect each other, so the welfare of the Cambodian people is the same as the citizens of those signatory countries.”
Chhayavy added that demonstrations would continue if no resolution is released for those who have been unfairly imprisoned.
In August, the group of protesters had held several demonstrations, submitting a copy of the same petition at the French, US, and European Union embassies as well as the United Nations’ Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR).
Chhun was arrested on July 31 and charged the following day with incitement to disturb social security based on remarks he made in an interview with Radio Free Asia saying that Vietnamese soldiers have placed border posts 500 meters into Cambodian territory and expelled villagers from their land.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Chad Roedemeier, said September 2 that the United States was monitoring the situation carefully.
“The United States is closely following the continued detention of respected union leader Rong Chhun,” he said via email. “Cambodia’s Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of expression, and we have consistently raised concerns with the Cambodian government about taking meaningful steps to reopen the political and civic space.”
On September 2, the United Nations OHCHR also confirmed by email that it had received a petition delivered by the protesters on August 24.
“International human rights law guarantees the right to security and liberty of person and protects individuals from arbitrary arrest and detention,” said OHCHR Cambodia Representative Pradeep Wagle. “The Office reminds the concerned authorities of their obligations to ensure that persons detained have access to a trial within a reasonable time. Furthermore, it shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.”
A spokesperson for the German Embassy said September 2 via email that the embassy had received the petition from the concerned demonstrators, noting that human rights are the main focus of Germany’s foreign policy.
“We support human rights in all the countries we work with,” the spokesperson said. “Human rights are always on Germany’s agenda when engaging with its partner countries. Germany supports civil society promoting human rights in many countries, including in Cambodia.”
Kubo Tomoko, first secretary at the Embassy of Japan confirmed receipt of the petition but declined to comment further on the situation.
“We would like to refrain from making comments, but we are closely monitoring the situation,” she said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said Cambodian citizens are within their rights to raise concerns over the recent jailing, but he pointed out that it is illegal for an outsider to meddle in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
“Ambassadors, as a representative of their country, must clearly understand Cambodian laws, the constitution, and the rule of law, so I think that they won’t intervene in violation of the law,” he said.
Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said that countries who are party to the Paris Peace Agreement have the right and obligation to review the treaty to make sure it is being accurately upheld.
“I think that that petition can be used as evidence if those countries want to approach the government to discuss to review its respect for human rights and reinstate the democratic process,” he said.
Senkaruna added that in the meantime, authorities should be working to defend rather than hinder citizens’ fundamental freedom to express their opinion, as guaranteed by law