A court in western Cambodia’s Pailin province has sentenced a schoolteacher to one year in prison for “incitement” after he criticized a monument to Cambodian-Vietnamese ties, prompting condemnation from rights groups who said the verdict violates his freedom of expression.
According to an April 9 ruling by the Pailin Provincial Court’s presiding judge Huy Nyhour, which was made public on Monday, Yuong So Da was tried and found guilty in absentia of “incitement to commit a felony” according to Article 495 of Cambodia’s penal code.
The verdict cited a comment Yuong So Da posted to Facebook in September 2020, which implied that the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin symbolized Cambodia’s increasing subservience to Vietnam.
“Now Cambodia has a [Cambodia-Vietnam] monument in nearly every province and soon the country will have two flags to raise,” the Facebook comment said.
Yuong So Da, who has been living in hiding for the past six months, called the court verdict “unjust and unacceptable” in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday.
“This matter is related to my freedom of expression, and I am a person who likes to speak the truth,” he said, speaking from an undisclosed location.
“I didn’t think the authorities would seek to arrest to me and that the court would try me. I am a teacher and an author—why are they making problems for me?”
Yuong So Da said he is considering appealing the court ruling, which he must do by mid-July.
Centuries of animosity
Animosity between Vietnam and Cambodia goes back centuries, but was heightened by the Vietnamese war that ousted Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and paved the way for long-ruling prime minister Hun Sen’s ascension to power.
Accusations over the demarcation of the border between Vietnam and Cambodia have become a prominent feature in Cambodian politics as Hun Sen’s opponents have attempted to paint the strong man as a tool of the Vietnamese.
Union leader Rong Chhun was officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh on Aug. 1, 2020, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border. His arrest prompted near daily protests in the capital Phnom Penh.
Ying Mengly, Battambang provincial coordinator for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA that posting comments on Facebook is an exercise in freedom of expression recognized by the constitution and called the verdict against Yuong So Da a “serious threat” to the country’s rule of law.
“I would like the court to drop the charges against the teacher,” he said. “He is just an individual. How were his comments considered incitement?”
“The state has many media outlets that can inform people [about the monument]. The government and courts need to open up and allow [criticism].”
While Yuong So Da is in hiding, he has used Facebook to ask that people to look after his parents, who he claims are facing pressure from authorities. On Tuesday, he posted a comment requesting donations of rice, pens and books in the event that he is jailed.
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