Authorities in Cambodia over the weekend arrested six activists, including an ordained monk and a rapper, for protesting or singing songs about Cambodia’s border dispute with Vietnam, drawing criticism for a crackdown on freedom of expression.
The six were officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony and create a chaos in the society” under Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code and were working for unregistered groups, Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior said in a statement released Sunday.
“Khmer Thavarak and the Mother Nature NGO have been working to incite people to provoke instability and social unrest by using social media and other means to disseminate information,” the ministry said, referring to the youth organization environmentalist group with which some of the activists are associated.
“The Ministry of Interior appeals to people not to participate these illegal groups. The Ministry of Interior asks authorities to take legal actions to maintain social and national order to prevent anarchic activities and social unrest,” the ministry said.
Authorities in Tboung Khmum province arrested activist Kong Sam An, who is affiliated with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Sunday and sent him to Prey Sar Prison Monday. National police spokesman Chhay Kim Khouen confirmed to RFA’s Khmer Service that the Phnom Penh municipal court accused him of incitement to provoke social unrest.
Mean Prommony, Vice-President of the Khmer Student Intelligent League/Khmer Thavarak and the Venerable Koet Saray were arrested Monday after they planned to lead people in protest at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to demand the release of union leader Rong Chhun, detained since July 31.
The police spokesman said they also were charged with incitement and sent to Prey Sar, and that the monk was defrocked before being sent to the court.
Phnom Penh authorities also arrested Khmer Thavarak activists Tha Lavy and So Metta on Monday when they participated in a different protest at Freedom Park.
Kea Sokun, the rapper known for his song “Khmer Land,” which criticizes the Cambodian government’s handling of its border dispute with Vietnam, was arrested Sept. 4 in Siem Reap province, and charged with incitement, provincial court spokesman Tith Narong told RFA.
The 22-year-old rapper’s arrest was deceived by authorities who booked his wedding photography business for a pre-wedding photo shoot and arrested him when he arrived at the shooting location, his brother Chheang Chhat told RFA.
Chheang Chhat said that he was unaware of his brother’s arrest until Tuesday when he called from jail to let him know.
“It is very unjust for him because he was arrested without knowing the charges,” he said.
Provoking the people
Koul Panha, an advisor for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) told RFA that the effort to intimidate the public through this crackdown would be unsuccessful.
“This crackdown cannot suppress the people because we are living in an era of new technology. We can get information from anywhere,” Koul Panha said.
“The people have access to all the information and are knowledgeable about social injustice. The government will fail to conduct justice reform,” he said.
“The institution is working to serve the [ruling] political party. It is a failure,” he said.
Koul Panha warned that the crackdown would lead to an economic downturn as Cambodia loses out on potential investors scared away by the country’s human rights abuses.
“More human rights violations will lead to a social crisis. People are losing confidence in state institutions,” he said.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who founded the Mother Nature NGO,said the government crackdowns have the effect of making people interested in his movement.
“More people want to participate,” he said.
“We are working on building a [human] wave to ask Hun Sen to retire,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.
International community condemns crackdown
Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, wrote in a Facebook post that “The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are protected by international human rights norms and standards as well as by the Cambodian Constitution.”
“I encourage Cambodian authorities to ensure that these rights are respected and protected and to create an environment in which individuals are able to exercise these rights. I urge that those arrested are promptly brought before a court of law and their due process rights are fully respected,” she said.
The embassies of U.S. and Australia also voiced support for the right of free expression in Cambodia.
The U.S. urged Phnom Penh to “facilitate a process of open dialogue and reconciliation,” while Australia encouraged that it “to afford all human rights activists the protections guaranteed in Cambodian law and the international human rights instruments to which Cambodia has subscribed.”
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor, meanwhile tweeted that she was alarmed by reports of the arrest.
“Peaceful protest is not a crime,” she said.
The arrests of Koet Saray and Mean Prommony brought to 16 the number of people detained for planning or participating in peaceful protests to call for Rong Chhun’s release.
Local rights group LICADHO reports that 142 separate civil society groups have demanded that Cambodian government drop all charges against the union leader and release him.
The latest wave of arrests comes three years after CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with the help of Washington. Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned his party in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
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