Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday warned that those stirring up social unrest by calling for borrowers not to repay their debts, apparently alluding to opposition CNRP figure Sam Rainsy and his supporters, would be arrested — the same day a CNRP member was jailed.
Sun Thun, a former CNRP party official in Kampong Thom, was arrested by provincial authorities on Monday morning, according to a family member and the provincial police chief.
Thun’s detention came hours before the premier vowed during a speech in Preah Sihanouk to arrest those he claimed intended to overthrow the government and sow social disorder.
“Don’t take the opportunity during the Covid-19 [pandemic] to topple the government or cause chaos. You want to try it, your strength has been decreased by cutting off the head and splitting the body,” Hun Sen said.
The main opposition CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 with more than 100 senior party leaders banned from participating in politics and CNRP president Kem Sokha jailed on treason charges, which are still pending.
Sokha was released on bail in 2018, and last month spoke with Hun Sen in person during the funeral of the prime minister’s mother-in-law, but the opposition leader remains under court restrictions and is banned from leaving the country and engaging in political activities.
On Monday, Hun Sen did not mince words, vowing to arrest anyone who followed orders from people living in the U.S., France or Canada who he claimed were planning a movement to make all banks in Cambodia collapse by inciting people not to pay back their loans.
“I frankly and clearly tell you, including those who are conducting activities inside the country, that if you act, I will arrest. If you act, I will arrest. If you act, I will arrest,” the prime minister said, repeating his promise.
“You cause economic subversion and destroy the nation. So there is no need to keep you,” he added. “Human rights matters will be put aside first. You cause destruction. Why do we have to talk about human rights? Human rights do not allow [you] to cause destruction.”
While Hun Sen did not mention his political rival by name, the premier appeared to be referring to CNRP co-founder Rainsy, who has shared a flurry of Facebook posts in the last month concerning the debt burden on the poor, including one from May 8 that advertised a CNRP online forum on the subject the following day.
Rainsy, who has lived abroad since 2015 to avoid a number of court convictions that he calls politically motivated, has posted various criticisms of the government in relation to citizens falling into debt amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Not only does the Hun Sen regime fail to help us in our hour of need, but it does everything to oppress us more, as if to try and finish us off. We have to get rid of this miserable regime through a campaign of passive resistance by refusing to repay our debts to the banks controlled by the Hun family on grounds of force majeure. This must continue until we have regained the jobs lost through the Covid-19 economic crisis,” Rainsy said in a Facebook post on May 30.
Asked about the campaign on Tuesday, CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua said Rainsy had made a “general appeal” to all microfinance borrowers and “no specific campaign has been organized.”
Last week, Rainsy claimed some were predicting the collapse of Cambodia’s financial institutions, citing millions of borrowers’ inability to repay microloan debts due to pandemic-related job losses.
On Monday, he again raised the issue of debt-fueled economic woes in a Facebook post.
“Ordinary people are up to their eyeballs in debt and in despair in the face of the bank and microfinance demands,” Rainsy said.
The Cambodia Microfinance Association last month said some 120,000 borrowers have been granted restructured loan terms valued at nearly $500 million, as many struggle to make payments due to income loss resulting from the pandemic’s economic impacts.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday shared with an image advertising an online event with Rainsy titled “People’s Debts in Times of Covid-19,” Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the incitement of people to forgo paying debts was an immoral and dishonest act.
“The conspirators of this wicked plan, as well as the practitioners will be held accountable under the law,” Malin said.
Besides Thun, two other CNRP members were arrested in the last week and charged with plotting and incitement to commit a felony, said Sam Sokong, a lawyer for all three men.
Kak Komphear, a former member of the CNRP executive committee in Phnom Penh, was arrested on Sunday and accused of committing crimes last year, Sokong told VOD on Tuesday.
Before his arrest, Komphear had received a phone call from an unknown man asking him to identify himself, according to CNRP deputy president Sochua.
Komphear later noticed a man with a motorbike parked in front of his house, and suspecting he was about to be arrested, he left the house and took a taxi to Takeo. The car was stopped and he was arrested, Sochua told VOD in an email.
“He had been in hiding for over a year fearing arrest,” she said.
Peat Mab, deputy head of the CNRP’s executive committee in Siem Reap, was arrested on May 27, his lawyer Sokong said.
Both Mab and Thun, the party officer in Kampong Thom province, were also charged with inciting military personnel to disobedience, allegedly committed in 2018.
Thun, a teacher and former Kampong Thom provincial head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), was arrested at his home in Tbong Khmum on Monday by four police officers who did not have a warrant, according to Sochua.
Kampong Thom provincial police chief Ouk Kosal said police arrested Thun under orders from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Union leader Rong Chhun, an adviser to CITA, said the arrest was politically motivated rather than based on a crime. He said the association would peacefully demand freedom and justice for Thun.
Sokong said the arrests were not in line with the law and he would request bail for all three men, as well as seek evidence to allow for the charges to be dropped.
The accused are being detained in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison and face between six months and 17 years in prison.
Activist Hun Vannak was also detained for about five hours on Monday in Poipet while taking photos of authorities near the international checkpoint at the Thai border.
The arrest came after a union of informal workers requested to hold demonstrations in Poipet this week over Covid-19-related border restrictions. Authorities denied the request and the union head said he and his members would not protest but the public was free to do so.
Vannak told VOD that police had questioned him and wanted him to sign a contract saying that he was working for Sun TV, the CNRP’s online media outlet, but he refused.
“I think that it is an intention to threaten us as human rights activists from monitoring them. Partly, they have intentions to threaten people who have a phone in their hands at the border area, which could see protests. They don’t want photos to be taken or live video because those images would make authorities lose face,” Vannak said.
Early last month, the activist was similarly detained and released along with five others who protested in front of financial institutions in Battambang and called on banks and microfinance lenders to suspend loan repayment requirements during the economic slowdown.
Sochua, the CNRP deputy president, said the prime minister had repeated threats to arrest anyone speaking about debt, labeling them as opposition aligned. He was aiming to silence voices of dissent without looking at the economic reality, which she said the CNRP was trying to address.
“How does it resolve the reality of the lives of millions who can’t make their payments and even make ends meet on a daily basis, in particular at this time of COVID-19?” Sochua said.
“Under these circumstances, no one should be forced to make any payments, even to pay interest,” she added.
Additional reporting by Saut Prathna, Nhim Sokhorn and Ouch Sony