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Cambodia’s Misleading Excuse for Trampling Free Speech

Cambodia’s Misleading Excuse for Trampling Free Speech
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Video production: Nik Yarst

Chin Malin

Chin Malin

Ministry of Justice spokesman

“The legal procedures brought against [Rong Chhun] were not due to his exercise of freedom of speech but because he had committed a crime.”


On August 17, Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, received a sentence of two years imprisonment for the vague charge of “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest.”

Activists Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol also were jailed for 20 months on incitement charges. Each individual was fined $500, and they were ordered to jointly pay $100,000 in damages to the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee.

On July 21, 2020, Rong Chhun had issued a statement alleging the placement of border posts resulted in Cambodian farmers losing ancestral land to Vietnam in Ponhea Kraek district, Tbong Khmum province.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, uses a megaphone during a protest near the prime minister's residence in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2020. (Heng Sinith/AP)
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, uses a megaphone during a protest near the prime minister's residence in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2020. (Heng Sinith/AP)

That, authorities said, was incitement. Chhun received the maximum allowable sentence under the law, sparking a flurry of condemnation from rights groups.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin replied:

“The legal procedures brought against [Chhun] were not due to his exercise of freedom of speech but because he had committed a crime. The authorities had a strong legal basis and evidence to bring the case to court and it led to these penalties.”

That is misleading.

In fact, Chhun is just the latest victim of Cambodia’s suppression of speech and civic participation under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, an autocrat who’s been in power since 1985.

In Cambodia and beyond, Chhun’s arrest and sentencing is largely viewed as politically motivated. Top diplomats condemned the sentence, including the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy.

“The conviction of respected union leader Rong Chhun raises serious questions about freedom of speech protected in Cambodia’s constitution and essential to the functioning of a democracy,” Murphy said on Twitter. “The judicial system should not be abused to silence peaceful activists.”

Tina Redshaw, U.K. ambassador to Cambodia, echoed Murphy.

“Freedom of expression is protected in Cambodia’s Constitution, and the judiciary shouldn’t be used to curtail it. Strong governments are open to hearing and engaging with a range of views from all of society,” she tweeted.

Chhun had weighed in on a sensitive issue in Cambodia: Enforcement of borders with the country’s historic enemy and neighbor, Vietnam. Some Cambodians in Ponhea Kraek claimed that Vietnamese were encroaching on their land.

On July 31, 2020, the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee claimed Chhun’s complaints about border posts disseminated “fake news” intended to cause social unrest and public misunderstanding.

Chhun, the committee said, had “colluded with bad actors who claimed their ancestral land was taken by Vietnamese soldiers who ousted them from their farms.”

Kuy Pisey, vice president of the Cambodia Border Committee, told VOA’s sister organization Radio Free Asia (RFA) that the border is “based on documentation,” and that the farmers there had never controlled (or lost) the land.

Chhun, contested the committee’s characterization of his statements on the matter, as well as their conclusions. “It is the truth, based on the villagers who said they lost around 500 meters (1,640 feet) of their land to the border … The border committee must be brave enough to accept the truth,” he told RFA.

Chhun was arrested the following day, August 1. Shortly afterward, 142 Cambodian civil society groups, communities and unions called on the government to drop all charges against him.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights called Chhun’s arrest “a clear violation of the unionist’s right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Cambodia’s constitution.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch concurred. “Prime Minister Hun Sen should stop muzzling labor unionists, human rights defenders, and other critics of government policies,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.

Kanika and Nimol were arrested while protesting for Chhun’s release outside of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August 2020.

Following the verdicts, Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the conviction and sentencing of all three men “forms part of a broader pattern of systemic silencing of dissenting or critical voices by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC).”

“The judicial harassment that they have faced — for legitimately exercising their fundamental freedoms — exemplifies the RGC's growing intolerance to criticism,” she said.

Rong Chhun is also a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, and a former member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition party, which was banned in November 2017. The party’s leadership was summarily targeted and convicted on what HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson called “bogus charges.”

The overall climate for speech and civil rights has worsened in Cambodia. The rights group Freedom House classifies the country as “not free” and a de facto one-party state. U.K.-based Amnesty International reported in January that 150 people affiliated with the CNRP are facing jail on charges that include treason and incitement.

In a new strike against press freedom, Cambodia’s Ministry of Information in late July announced it was creating a “Monitoring Committee for Journalism Ethics” to “provide guidance to journalists who violate professional ethics and adjust their performance accordingly.”

Daniel Bastard, the head of journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, called the committee “a new tool of censorship and intimidation that Prime Minister Hun Sen's government is deploying in order to silence any media outlets that dare to question its policies.”

RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, which rates the media environment in 180 countries and territories, placed Cambodia toward the bottom (144th).

In April 2020, Cambodia introduced state-of-emergency powers ostensibly to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, but which rights groups say have been broadly used to snuff out free speech, particularly criticism of the government.

As previously reported by and others, journalists have been jailed for incitement and other charges for criticizing Hun Sen’s plan to name his son as his successor; the government debt-relief efforts during the pandemic; reports on a land dispute involving the military; and even repeating Hun Sen’s own comments.

In one egregious case, a 14-year-old girl was arrested for expressing fears about coronavirus circulating at her school on social media.