Three people linked to the Cambodia National Rescue Party were charged with “incitement” on Monday for their participation in a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday.
Former opposition officials Tun Nimol, who was a commune councilor from Takhmao, and Lim San, a former councilor from Kandal province’s Kampong Svay commune, were charged with “incitement” by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday.
Party supporter Yory Sreymom, who is a resident of Kandal’s Koh Thom district, was charged for the same alleged crime. The three had been arrested during a protest to mark the anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement on Friday, where local officials forcefully dispersed the small crowd of protestors.
Kuch Kimlong, a spokesperson for Phnom Penh Municipal Court, confirmed that the three protestors had been charged for incitement on Sunday, adding that they could face prison sentences of up to two years.
“After questioning [them], the investigating judge Ek Poly Phil decided to detain the three people,” he said.
The protests were called by exiled CNRP leaders and were aimed at alleged plans for a Chinese military presence on Cambodian soil. Media articles and speculation have been rife over two possible locations for this alleged base: the existing Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province or the potential use of Dara Sakor Resort in Koh Kong province.
Around two dozen protestors were seen outside the Chinese Embassy on Friday, but were met with a heavy presence of mixed security forces who violently dispersed the crowds and arrested the three people charged with incitement. Two former CNRP officials were detained on Thursday in Tbong Khmum province and prevented from participating in Friday’s protest.
Family members of the three detainees expressed shock at the severity of the charges for participating in a peaceful protest.
Chan Tun, Tun Nimol’s father, said his son was only expressing the constitutional right to protest and was unsure how the demonstration affected “social chaos,” as claimed by the authorities.
“It is unacceptable and unfair. How can 20 people provoke [social chaos]?” he said.
Phan Naiseak, 27, daughter of Lim San, and Khum Sreyleak, Yory Sreymom’s daughter, questioned why their mothers were prevented from expressing their opinions.
“I think it is unfair for my mother,” Phan Naiseak said. “Is it wrong to protest on October 23 for the Paris Peace Agreement? Why jail her at Prey Sar?”
Before the protest, Prime Minister Hun Sen had threatened protestors to refrain from demonstrating outside the Chinese Embassy.
On Monday, Hun Sen directly threatened former CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann and his family for allegedly planning and facilitating the Friday protest.
“Why did you order the protest against the Chinese embassy, against Chinese military presence?” said Hun Sen, referring to Ho Vann. “You are silly. Be careful, your wife and children won’t be able to sleep.”
The prime minister was speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new bridge that will join Koh Pich to Koh Norea, which is currently being filled in to create an artificial island.
Hun Sen again took umbrage with media reports about an agreement between Cambodia and China to allow the latter military access in the south of the country.
“I am so tired of some foreigners and Cambodians who’ve pushed that accusation,” he said.
“Show us your evidence that Cambodia has a secret agreement with China to have exclusive use of Ream Naval Base for 30 years,” he said. “If you don’t show evidence, it means you lie.”
Chad Roedemeier, a spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy, said the United States was only looking for the Cambodian government to abide by the Constitution, which prohibits any foreign military presence in the country.
“The Prime Minister has said Cambodia would not allow an exclusive or permanent Chinese military presence at Ream, and we hope the government continues to abide by that position,” he said in an email.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two countries had signed an agreement allowing for the use of Ream Naval Base. This allegation was further amplified by a Center for Strategic and International Studies report that revealed a U.S.-built facility at Ream had been demolished in September 2020, allegedly to make way for a Chinese presence at the base.
Former CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann said the prime minister should not have involved his family in what was a political matter.
“If I have committed a mistake, why do innocent people have to be guilty?” he said, referring to his family.