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Popular Unionist’s Arrest Over Border Comments Sparks Protests


FILE: Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, recounted Chea Vichea's union activism, during the commemoration of 16th anniversary of Chea Vichea's murder in Phnom Penh, January 22, 2020. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)

Nearly two dozen Cambodian youth and activists were prevented on Monday from continuing protests against the Friday night arrest of unionist Rong Chhun for his comments relating to border posts along the Vietnamese border in Tboung Khmum province.

The longtime rights activists and former head of a teacher’s association was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh late Friday night. He was sent to court and charged with incitement on Saturday, after which he was detained at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.

While officials have not been clear over the evidence used against Rong Chhun, they are likely linked to his recent comments and statements over alleged irregularities in border demarcation along the Cambodian border with Vietnam.

Kuch Kimlong, a spokesperson at the Phnom Penh court, on Monday only confirmed Rong Chhun’s arrest and his detention for alleged incitement, based on Article 495 of the Criminal Code.

“After questioning in accordance with legal procedures, investigative judge Van Sen Visoth decided to send Rong Chhun to pre-trial detention,” he said on Monday.

The arrest spurred protests outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Saturday, which continued on Monday. Local authorities and police prevented a group of around 20 people from protesting outside the court on Monday, after which the group decided to walk to the Justice Ministry, all the while followed and monitored by security personnel.

Supporters of Rong Chhun, leader of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions hold placards during a protest in front of Phnom Penh municipal court on August 1, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)
Supporters of Rong Chhun, leader of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions hold placards during a protest in front of Phnom Penh municipal court on August 1, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

Rong Vann, Rong Chhun's 22-year-old nephew who was part of the protests, said his uncle had been arrested without a warrant, and questioned the rationale behind a late-night arrest.

“Arresting him like this is...against the law,” Rong Vann said, as he passed a shopping mall near Olympic Stadium. “He was arrested at night when he was about to go to bed, and without a warrant.”

Rong Chhun released a statement on July 20 questioning the accuracy of border demarcations 114 to 119 in Tboung Khmum’s Punhea Krek district. He said he had visited villagers who said around 100 families had lost around 500 meters of land to the Vietnamese side and were prevented from growing crops.

According to the statement, “many irregularities has seen them lose hundreds of hectares of land where they grow crops.”

He called on the government and a border demarcation committee to investigate the claim made by villagers. The comments have touched on a sensitive subject for the Cambodian government, which has routinely faced criticism, especially from former members of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, for ceding Cambodian land to Vietnam during border demarcation efforts.

More recently, Rong Chhun has also been part of garment worker protests against factory closures during COVID-19, in his capacity as president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions.

One hundred and forty-one civil society organizations and grassroots communities released a statement on Monday decrying the arrest and calling for the release of the jailed unionist.

“After more than a decade of harassment by authorities, this latest arrest of a respected union leader is a direct threat to every Cambodian who exercises their constitutional right to freely express their beliefs without having to fear a midnight visit by police and years lost in prison,” read the statement.

The statement pointed to previous arrests of Rong Chhun, most notably in October 2005 when he was jailed for three months for again making comments on border issues with Vietnam.

A youth holds a banner calling for the release of Rong Chhun in front of the Olympia Mall of Phnom Penh, August 3, 2020. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)
A youth holds a banner calling for the release of Rong Chhun in front of the Olympia Mall of Phnom Penh, August 3, 2020. (Hul Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)

Am Sam Ath, the deputy director for monitoring at rights group Licadho, said the arrest would further erode citizens’ right to free expression, resulting in self-censorship.

“We find that some people think that these issues can affect the freedom of expression,” he said. “Others may restrict their freedom of expression," he added.

Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin defended the arrest and said the sudden arrest of Rong Chhin was warranted because he had been caught in the act of committing the crime, referring to the unionist’s statements as an “obvious crime.”

“An obvious crime means that the crime continued after his actions began. After he posted on his page continuously [about the border] he also gave an interview till the time of his arrest,” Chin Malin said.

Hours prior to the arrest Rong Chhun, the government’s Joint Boundary Commission of Cambodia had characterized comments he made earlier on Radio Free Asia as “untrue and exaggerated,” even threatening legal action.

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch said, the villagers who complained about loss of land and Rong Chhun had the right to freely express their grievances and that the government was playing the “shoot the messenger” game.

“Rather than arrest Rong Chhun, the government should be thanking him for raising these concerns and then sending a team to listen to the villagers’ grievances and try to find solutions for them,” he said, in an email.

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