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‘Secessionist’ Accusations Continue To Worry Rights Advocates

Cambodian NGOs at a social forum, file photo.
Cambodian NGOs at a social forum, file photo.

Among them is Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando, who remains in prison awaiting trial.

WASHINGTON DC - Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he wants more suspects questioned in an alleged secessionist plot against the government, sparking concern among rights workers they will be stopped from doing their jobs.

A number of suspects have been rounded up for allegedly leading a plot in Kratie province, a government charge widely considered exaggerated. Among them is Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando, who remains in prison awaiting trial.

Amnesty International said this week they considered him a “prisoner of conscience” and urged his release. But the premier’s continued pursuit of the so-called secessionist plot will create a chilling effect on rights workers, said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

“There will be self-censorship,” he said. “When there is self-censorship, that means this fear will affect the effectiveness of NGO work.”

Mam Sonando’s arrest and the subsequent secessionist crackdown are bad precedents, he said, which could lead to less and less oversight of the government by civil society, whose advocates fear being charged in similar plots.

Mam Sonando is charged with leading the Kratie plot through the Association of Democrats, following a violent government crackdown on villagers there.

Amnesty said in a statement, however, the real reason behind his arrest seemed to be the popularity of his association and his radio broadcasts, including news of an US-based group that has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court over the government’s displacement of thousands of families in land disputes.

Four out of five men who were arrested in connection with the alleged secessionist plot have put the blame on Mam Sonando, according to Cambodian justice officials. Another man accused of leading the Kratie plot is Bun Rotha, believed to be hiding in Thailand.

Hun Sen said Wednesday he wanted an NGO official brought to court to answer for Bun Rotha’s escape from the country.

In interviews with VOA Khmer, Bun Rotha has denied there was a secessionist plot in Kratie, where villagers violently opposed a land grab, and said Mam Sonando had nothing to do with the demonstrations there.

Independent political analyst Lao Monghay said this week Hun Sen should leave the issue to law enforcement experts, rather than calling for more court action. His involvement makes the issue political, not legal, he said.