Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Unbowed by prison, union leader Rong Chhun says he will continue to advocate for rights

Union leader Rong Chhun speaks during an interview with CamboJA in Phnom Penh, November 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Union leader Rong Chhun speaks during an interview with CamboJA in Phnom Penh, November 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Less than two weeks after his release from prison, unionist Rong Chhun vowed that he would continue fighting for human rights and social justice.

“I, Rong Chhun, have returned back,” he said on Tuesday, at his first press briefing held at a Phnom Penh gas station following more than a year in prison. On November 12, Chhun — along with six other activists — was released after serving 15 months of a 24 month sentence on incitement charges related to his criticisms of how the Vietnamese-Cambodia border had been demarcated.

The 52-year-old, who has long been an outspoken critic of the government, said he remains committed to social justice issues regarding human rights, democracy, and, notably, border affairs.

“We aren’t given up on the border issue, we remain to gradually watch, and we will visit the border [in the future],” he told the press on Tuesday. “I want to show my stance that I will continue my mission in finding freedom, respecting human rights, and democracy,”

The conference was held by Chhun and several of the released activists, to show they remain committed to advocating for human rights.

“We absolutely suffered from injustice,” Chhun said, noting that there was scant investigation from the court or police into the charges levied against him and the activists — most of whom had been arrested for supporting environmental causes. He also called on the court to immediately release other prisoners of conscience.

“When we have seen a gap in leadership, we citizens must fill it by speaking up,” he said.

Union leader Rong Chhun (R), arrives at a coffee shop before a press conference in Phnom Penh, Picture taken November 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

A lifetime of advocacy 

The President of the independent Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, Chhun was the former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) and has been a vocal human rights defender for decades.

Chhun was born in 1969, at Kandal province’s Talon commune, the fourth of five siblings, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. In an interview with CamboJA on Wednesday, Chhun said that he became active in labor issues starting with his first job, as a high school teacher.

“In 1993, I advocated helping teachers to get better work conditions,” he said.

As the president of CITA, he began working with Chea Vichea of the Free Trade Union starting in 1996, focusing both on the rights of teachers and other workers. After Vichea was shot dead in Phnom Penh in January 2004, Chhun worked to merge FTU and CITA in 2006, to become the CCU — in spite of ongoing threats and intimidation directed toward him.“We were always worried about our security and safety but we can’t halt our task, so [we] continue the heroic work of Chea Vichea that remains related to working condition and social justice,” Chhun said.

Chhun was first arrested in 2005, when he was charged with defamation and incitement to commit a crime for protesting a controversial border agreement with Vietnam, as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“At that time, I was detained at Prey Sar prison for 96 days,” he said. In 2014, Chhun was briefly detained while protesting the arrest of labor leader Vorn Pao and 22 other activists and workers. His latest imprisonment, in July 2020, followed countless acts of protest and criticism. In spite of the costs, however, Chhun remains committed to his activism.

“For me, I do not fear because I did everything in line with the law. As a citizen we need to participate if concerned with social matters,” Chhun said.

Union leader Rong Chhun arrives at the Appeal Court for hearing in Phnom Penh, Picture taken October 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Chhun said that while protesting he has often faced intimidation from security forces as well as violence, and has been beaten with sticks as well as electric batons.

“However, we do not give up because we believe that our participation is an important role in protesting and constructive criticism,” Chhun said.

He said he is working to “ensure Cambodian citizens have freedom, respect for human rights, and a genuine democracy.”

Starting in 2015, Chhun served for several years as a member of the National Election Committee as part of the quota allocated to the then-opposition CNRP. He, like the other opposition-appointed members, resigned in November 2017, shortly after the Supreme Court dissolved the party and barred its members from participating in politics. With the political situation deteriorating in recent years, said Chhun, it has become even more important to advocate for rights.

“I can’t predict because I can’t see everything in future, but I am ready and cautious of those challenging issues,” he said. “Now, I am thinking about [focusing on] the livelihood conditions of workers and teachers, and demanding the release of other activists.”

Chhun said he is also considering working with other independent unionists to reform trade union law and the National Council on Minimum Wage. Contrary to the aims of the law, he said union leaders have no power in making decisions that are influenced by employers and the government officials.

Mother Nature activists speak to the media during a press conference in Phnom Penh, Picture taken November 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Continuing the work

A total of 27 activists were released in the two weeks following Chhun’s release, ahead of an online summit of EU and Southeast Asian leaders hosted by Cambodia last week. Chhun said that his early release and that of the other activists was due solely to Cambodian leaders wanting to protect the country’s reputation, particularly ahead of 2022, when Cambodia will be the ASEAN host. He noted that leaders from the US and EU often use ASEAN summits to question countries on their human rights records.

Chhun said his arrest and those of the other activists, who had simply been peacefully protesting or even just criticizing the government, showed how the space for free expression had been narrowing in recent years.

Like Chhun, Mother Nature environmental activist Phuong Keoreaksmey, who was among the seven released on November 12, pledged to continue to protect Cambodia natural resources, despite being under watch from officials.

“We continue to think that our previous actions weren’t against the law, but we are just practicing our rights, and we encourage other youths to stand up and join with us related to social work,” Keoreaksmey said.

“We are still continuing our stance on environmental work and natural resources in our country,” she continued.

“We are worried because when we get arrested there is no benefit for us…. But the one benefit is that other youths clearly see all the [injust] things that happened to us.”