WASHINGTON DC —
Rong Chhun, a former activist and frequent face at workers’ protests in Cambodia, whose advocacy even occasionally landed him in jail, is today a far less public or controversial figure than before.
It has been almost two years since Chhun, former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, left the advocacy group he had led for over 15 years to serve as a member of the National Election Committee (NEC).
The move marked a significant change in the work of the activist, who made his name through street protests and relentless criticism of the government.
Now as part of the reformed nine-member NEC founded in 2015, he works alongside fellow nominees of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, as well as members nominated by the Cambodian People’s Party and a civil society representative to organize the upcoming elections.
Despite the shift in career, Chhun says his fundamental position hasn’t changed.
“My position before and now remains the same, but only the nature of the work is slightly different,” he told VOA Khmer.
“When I see a thing as white, I’d say it’s white; and black as black, not the other way around,” he said. “I’m still honest to the people and the nation.”
In his previous role Chhun advocated for better rights for teachers, whereas now he seeks to make sure the NEC is “free, fair, transparent, and independent; and delivers a result where all parties can accept,” he said.
Opposition protests following the 2013 election results dragged on for almost a year, with the blame centered on the chief of the election body Im Sousdey and his secretary general, Tep Nitha.
Protests against the results, which gave a narrow victory to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party, were joined by Chhun and his supporters.
However, the new NEC still offered Nitha the same job despite reports that not all members supported him.
Chhun played down the significance of Nitha’s job.
“Actually, Tep Nitha received major support so in a democratic practice I have to respect the majority,” he said. “His job as the secretary general will handle technical issues. He is simply playing a supporting role to the NEC.”
Chhun, however, acknowledged that his own new role landed him in the difficult position of not being able to speak to the press on issues he advocated for in the past.
“My new job does not permit me to give an interview to the media because we have to respect NEC law and election law; and the job is being handled by a spokesman”, he said, adding that initially “I felt stressed, too.”
The difficulty in separating the rules of his new job and his personal activism was seen through his participation in the International Labor Day celebrations in Phnom Penh in May, where NEC chair Sik Bunhok had to warn him to stay neutral.
Chhun was born in 1969 in Talon commune, Kandal province, as the fourth of five siblings.
Soon after graduating in 1993 from the Royal University of Phnom Penh with a bachelor degree in mathematics he began teaching at a high school in his hometown.
It was the same year that Cambodia organized its first democratic elections sponsored by the United Nations and later opened its garment industry for export to Western markets. Rural people, mostly young women, flocked to the capital to seek factory jobs. They received low pay and had to work in poor conditions.
While holding down the teaching job, from 1996 Chhun and his friends - including the slain union boss Chea Vichea - organized several worker protests to demand better pay and working conditions.
In 2000, Chhun and more than 30 teachers formed the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association to demand better pay and rights in the sector.
The association grew rapidly and now boasts more than 10,000 members across the country.
“Since the establishment of the teachers’ association until now we’ve seen that living conditions of teachers are improving, though not to the satisfactory level that we want,” said Ouk Chhayavy, who has taken over the leadership role since Chhun’s departure.
“The biggest success is that our teachers have more freedom than before.”
Another fellow teacher, Kim Tarany, who joined Chhun’s association in 2002, said the activist had stolen all teachers’ hearts, and his career move had been met with disappointment.
But, Tarany added, “We have now turned our disappointment for losing a hard-found leader to hoping that he will help our country to have justice in elections.”
“We place hope on our leader because we know that he is not biased and fair,” she said, adding that Chhun’s supporters are constantly concerned about his safety.
The concerns stem from Chhun’s past run-ins with authorities.
In 2005, he was charged with defamation against the prime minister and incitement for a statement he made about a border agreement between Cambodia and Vietnam. He was imprisoned until his release on bail in January 2006.
Years later, in 2014, he was detained for leading a demonstration to demand the release of 23 people who were arrested for taking part in protests against the election results.
Threat also came from elsewhere.
Factory owners “called up and threatened him to leave the country; and said if he refused, his life would be in danger,” recalled Ouk Chhayavy of an incident five years ago.
“But he replied that if he advocated for workers and teachers and had to die, he preferred to die in Cambodia. He didn’t want to run away from the country and let the country fall into disaster.”
While Chhun is adapting to his new job, his former colleague Kim Tarany remains concerned about the challenges that may arise as the elections near.
“We want him to continue his work for the nation. He has been working without thinking of his own health or safety. Therefore, all Khmers should gather around our hero because no matter how brave he is or how hard he works, if he is alone he cannot help our country much”, said Tarany.
The NEC just finished registering 7.8 million of 9.6 million eligible voters, and with all eyes on the new election body, Chhun admits that every step he takes must be with caution.