The European Union on Friday expressed serious concern over the recent spate of arrests and detentions of youth and rights advocates, linked to a government crackdown on protests emanating from the arrest of trade unionist Rong Chhun.
Since late July, when Rong Chhun was arrested, nearly two dozen activists have been arrested, and around a dozen have been charged with incitement or attempts to cause social chaos. These arrests have mainly targeted youth-led groups like Khmer Thavrak, Mother Nature, and the Khmer Student Intellectual League Association (KSILA).
The Interior Ministry has pointed to the controversial Law on NGOs and Associations to label Khmer Thavarak and Mother Nature Cambodia as “illegal” groups and called on citizens to not be involved with the youth activism groups.
“The E.U. is seriously concerned about the continuous deterioration of democracy and human rights in the country, including about recent reports of arrests of human rights defenders, activists and trade union leaders,” said the E.U.’s foreign affairs spokesperson Nabila Massrali in an email to VOA Khmer.
“We continue to call on the Cambodian government to take concrete action to reopen the political space in the country, to reverse the shrinking space for civil society and to ensure the respect of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” she added.
Massrali’s comments came a month after the economic bloc enforced a partial suspension of trade privileges given to Cambodia, on account of “serious and systematic” rights violations by the Hun Sen government, especially in the run-up to the 2018 national election.
The United Nations’ human rights office in Geneva also highlighted the arrest of some 24 activists, human rights defenders, and environmentalists since the end of July, reporting that half of them were detained and charged.
“The current situation marks a deepening of the government’s intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N.’s Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, in a statement released on Friday.
“It is mainly directed at human rights organizations, environmentalists and human rights defenders,” she added.
Chin Malin, a Justice Ministry spokesperson, said in a social media post that the U.N. statement was not based on any factual or legal grounds, and insisted that the youth groups had committed crimes.
“The recent legal measures against their targeted groups are not done because the facts their activisms in advocating for freedom, human rights, environments, and public interests, but because they commit crimes as stated by Cambodian laws and because they are backed from behind the scene by groups with well-organized structures,” he said on Facebook.
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the arrests were conducted to obstruct people who were “plotting to overthrow” the government.
“The resistance backed by several people and foreign agents to destroy social order and unseat a legitimate government cannot be allowed,” Phay Siphan said.
On Thursday, the police arrested Moung Sopheak, who had gone ahead with a planned protest organized by the Khmer Thavarak youth group at the Freedom Park on Monday. Phnom Penh officials had denied permission for the protest at Freedom Park, which is a designated space for staging peaceful demonstrations.
Moung Sopheak is a member of the Khmer Student Intellectual League Association and was sent to Phnom Penh Municipal Court Friday afternoon for questioning after spending a night in police custody, said Moung Sony, his brother, and president of KSILA.
“The KSILA is not involved [in any plot to overthrow the government],” said KSILA President Moung Sony. “We come out to voice ideas because we have the sympathy of our nation and because we saw a rise in injustices.”
“We should not be thrown into the politics of smear, provocation, and scapegoating,” Moung Sony added, distancing his group from exiled opposition politicians calling for regime change.