Market Vendor, Tuk-Tuk Driver Supporters of Unionist Grilled in Court

3 min read
Unionist Rong Chhun, wearing sunglasses, observes a marker along Cambodia’s border with Vietnam in Tbong Khmum province’s Trapaing Phlong commune, in a photograph posted to his Facebook page on July 21, 2020.

Another tense hearing in the trial of prominent unionist Rong Chhun saw two supporters, who are also defendants, arguing they are merely a market vendor and tuk-tuk driver and not political activists despite participating in protests.

Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was arrested last year over controversial statements that the country is ceding land near the border to Vietnam, sparking protests that led to several supporters’ arrests.

On Wednesday, on the second day of his trial, which began last month, Chhun was briefly questioned about whether he knew Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol, the other defendants in the case.

Chhun said he knew who they were, but denied they were involved in his statements on Vietnam. He also explained the motivation behind his statements by saying that “a civil society organization is a mirror to reflect the shortfalls of the government.”

“The statement does not affect the prime minister, but all of you affect the honor and name of the prime minister because you always arrest and detain,” he said in response to questions.

But the bulk of the hearing was devoted to questioning Kanika and Nimol, neighbors in Kandal province’s Takhmao city.

Judge Li Sokha started questioning Kanika by raising evidence taken from her confiscated phone: photographs, Facebook pages and transcripts of Telegram group chats.

Sokha held up a photo of the phone and asked her, “Is this your phone?”

Defense lawyer Choung Choungy interrupted the question, saying his client couldn’t verify it from a piece of paper. He asked the judge to produce the actual phone.

The judge and lawyer exchanged words before Choungy struck the table before him with an open hand.

“Do not hit the table. I am a judge. You have to respect me,” Sokha said. “You hit the table. You are looking down on me.”

“I’ve told you already that it is just a piece of paper and not a phone. You have to show her the phone,” Choungy replied.

Deputy prosecutor Seng Heang stood up and requested that Choungy be ejected if he continued to behave improperly.

The judge questioned Kanika about a Telegram group chat in which she was told not to go home because authorities were monitoring her house. Kanika said the chatter was just exaggeration.

“I’m a vendor,” she said in response to questions about whether she had taken part in Chhun’s activities.

But Sokha also asked about her setting up a new group, the Informal Economic Workers Association for Society, and whether Chhun was involved.

Kanika said the group was just a way to support people, and she had asked Chhun for advice but had established the association herself.

Government lawyer Chhit Boravuth asked about her support for Chhun.

“You considered teacher Rong Chhun as your idol. Do you have to support all of his activities or what?”

“Generally, when we respect and love someone, we need to look at the good and the bad,” she said, adding that he had more good points than bad.

“So you think he has many supporters?” Boravuth asked.

“It is according to your perspective,” Kanika replied.

Nimol, a tuk-tuk driver, faced similar questions.

“You looked very active in demonstrations. Is it your will or your career?” deputy prosecutor Heang asked.

Nimol replied: “It is from my heart. … No one gave money to me. It is my money.”

Nimol said he had no involvement with Chhun, and did not know about any group chat about demanding Chhun’s release. However, he supported Chhun’s activities because it was not against the law to go and assess border markers, Nimol said.

“I think what he is concerned with is nothing illegal,” he told Judge Sokha.

The trial has been scheduled to continue on February 17. All three defendants are charged with incitement to disturb social security, which carries a jail term of up to two years.

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