WASHINGTON DC - Human rights workers say the arrest of Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando has caused concern throughout civil society of further arrests and prosecution in a large-scale crackdown.
Mam Sonando was arrested in mid-July and accused of leading a secessionist movement in Kratie province, charges that are widely believed to be fabricated.
Some observers say it may have been his participation in and broadcast of a series of forums by a US-based group seeking to topple the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen that led to the arrest. Authorities have arrested a number of suspects linked to the Kratie incident, but they are still seeking others.
Rights workers say Mam Sonando’s detention has spread a message of fear and is hurting Cambodia’s fledgling democracy.
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said rights workers and other advocates need to be able to do their work.
“The arrest is a message to other activists in other provinces, and this is the issue we are concerned about today,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government’s inability to solve the spreading problem of land seizures and disputes threatens to destabilize parts of society, he said.
Villagers in Kratie province, where Mam Sonando is accused of inciting anti-government behavior, were in fact violently protesting in a land dispute.
More disputes mean more involvement by rights workers, Ou Virak said, but Mam Sonando’s arrest bodes ill for them.
“If there is no solution, the government will start to oppress by arresting many activists,” he said. “I believe that there will be more arrests of human rights activists in the years 2012 and 2013, especially before the election in 2013.”
Analysts say the government should consider the effects of a large-scale crackdown under the idea of secession, since it can affect its reputation regionally, especially going into a major summit for Asean countries in November.
Lao Monghay, an independent political analyst, said the Beehive arrest and other recent crackdowns have created “fear and self-censorship” among rights workers, especially in seeking Mam Sonando’s release.
“They do not dare to do stronger,” he said. “When it comes to the protection of Mam Sonando, it seems not fully as active as the freeing of 13 Boeung Kak land-grab victims.” He was referring to efforts by local and international groups to have 13 protesters released in Phnom Penh after their arrest in a demonstration.
Some NGOs have not come to the aid of Mam Sonando because they don’t know which groups he belongs to, Lao Monghay said.
The crackdown that began with villagers in Kratie province and included the arrest of Mam Sonando may not be over. Hun Sen has warned he will take serious action against any groups seeking to topple his regime. He has appealed to leaders of the protests in Kratie to seek amnesty and become witnesses.
One leader of the Kratie villagers, Bun Rotha, remains in hiding. Speaking to VOA Khmer by phone Friday, he said he had helped gather villagers together to protest land seizures, but he denied he had been part of a secessionist movement.
A reliable source close to police told VOA Khmer that some NGOs will be investigated over the Kratie land dispute and alleged protection of Bun Rotha.
“I have no connection to NGOs or institutions as a backbone or shelter at all,” he said. “But I like collaboration. If they have good policies, a just will, and real integrity, I will contact them. That is what I like.”
Major rights groups like Adhoc and Licadho say they have not received any summonses from police or the courts.
Chan Saveth, lead investigator for Adhoc, said he has been working carefully on the case of Mam Sonando, “because we do not have clear information.” Adhoc has provided legal support to land victims in the protests, he said.
Licadho investigator Am Sam Ath said rights groups have an obligation to help support victims in land grabs and other abuses. The government should cooperate with them, rather than prosecute them, he said.
“This is a threat and stymies the freedom of participation in protecting and promoting human rights in Cambodia,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the arrest was conducted legally and that government officials and NGO workers alike can be arrested in they are implicated in illegal activities.
He said that NGOs that “play an important role in opposing the government” are “wrong.”