Protests continued into Monday over the jailing of prominent labor leader Rong Chhun in relation to his comments on the alleged loss of Cambodian territory to Vietnam, while a border official disputed the unionist’s claims.
Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a representative of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was arrested on Friday night on charges of “incitement to commit a felony” over a recent statement about border markers between Cambodia and Vietnam.
On Saturday and Sunday, several dozen protesters rallied in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with banners, demanding the release of the outspoken union leader. About 20 demonstrators were seen outside the court again on Monday.
A judge ordered Chhun to be provisionally detained in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison on Saturday after several hours of questioning at the municipal police headquarters. If convicted, Chhun faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 4 million riel ($1,000).
Sam Sokong, Chhun’s lawyer, said the investigating judge, Van Sen Visoth, questioned his client over his visit to the area with the border markers in question in Tbong Khmum province on July 21, as well as the comments Chhun made after.
“This accusation is something that is unacceptable because my client works to benefit society, and what he said on his Facebook were his findings and an expression that is protected by the Constitution,” Sokong said on Saturday.
In a statement signed by Chhun and posted on his Facebook page on July 21, the Watchdog Council said it visited border markers 114 through 119 in Tbong Khmum’s Trapaing Phlong commune on July 20, and the group noticed many irregularities, claiming hundreds of hectares of Cambodian land had been lost to Vietnam due to border demarcation.
A few hours before Chhun’s arrest on Friday, Cambodia’s Border Affairs Committee released a statement claiming that Chhun’s organization was disseminating “fake news” about the border with ill intentions in order to stir confusion, and making false claims that the government was forcing Cambodians to stop farming near the border.
Reached on Monday, border committee chair Var Kimhong defended the charges against Chhun, saying that the leader had not listened to government explanations in the past. Kimhong added that Chhun had been arrested in 2005 over his comments about a border agreement with Vietnam.
“You know, we poured water on the duck’s head. Will it stay on?” Kimhong said, employing a Khmer metaphor about stubbornness.
After admonishing a VOD reporter for asking about the case, Kimhong also denied Chhun’s claims that Cambodian territory along the border had been lost to Vietnam, questioning why the government would allow that to happen.
“Is it honorable for the government of the country if we made our country lose territory?” he asked.
Rong Vichea, the labor leader’s nephew, said about 30 police officers came to the family’s house on Friday and threatened to break in if the door was not opened and Chhun did not cooperate. Vichea called the accusations and arrest of his uncle unjust, as the unionist worked for the betterment of Cambodia.
Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association president Ouk Chhayavy, who attended Saturday’s protests, urged international stakeholders to intervene over Chhun’s arrest.
“He just shows his concern about the factory workers, and he is concerned about the border that the neighboring country has invaded,” Chhayavy said. “It is an injustice to Rong Chhun. Rong Chhun is not at fault. Please, international community, help Rong Chhun. Cambodia is so miserable.”
Among the human rights abuses cited in a February decision to partially withdraw Cambodia’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) duty-free trade access to the European market, the E.U. said the country had not made sufficient progress in resolving civil and criminal cases against union leaders.
After protests outside the courthouse continued through Monday, the Justice Ministry and Phnom Penh City Hall released separate statements warning that authorities would take legal action against those who gathered and protested without permission from officials.
While City Hall did not specifically mention the weekend’s demonstrations and cited Covid-19 health measures, the Justice Ministry said that gatherings in protest of Chhun’s arrest were illegal and that protesters could be charged with pressuring the courts under the Criminal Code.
Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said the court had found sufficient evidence to charge Chhun with a crime, and those who disagreed could take their concerns to court.
“If the relatives or the person concerned think that they have not committed the crime in the accusation, [they] must participate in the court proceedings and defend themselves according to the law,” Malin said on Saturday.
Nearly 150 civil society groups issued a joint statement on Monday urging the court to release Chhun and drop the charge against him, saying it violated his freedom of expression and was “a direct threat to every Cambodian who exercises their constitutional right to freely express their beliefs.” Cambodian Center for Independent Media, VOD’s parent organization, also signed the joint statement.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Chhun was speaking out for those who claim to have lost land during the border demarcation process, saying that the international community should be minding this case.
“The European Union should certainly make Rong Chhun’s arrest and ongoing plight an issue that Cambodia must address as part of their response to the EBA,” he said in an email. “Rong Chhun is one of the most prominent labor leaders in the country and what happens to him affects the labor movement as a whole.”
Several opposition parties, including the dissolved CNRP, issued statements over the weekend urging the government to release Chhun, and arguing that the unionist’s arrest would prevent people from speaking out about border issues and other controversial but important topics.
“The arrest of Rong Chhun is a gross violation of national and international law, especially the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which guarantees the protection of the freedom of expression and rights to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation,” the CNRP said in a statement on Saturday.
In their own statement, the Grassroots Democracy Party added that “it should be sufficient for the government to just issue a clarification and tell the truth to avoid people from misunderstanding the border issue, and it does not need to arrest and charge.”
The Khmer Will Party also called for Chhun’s immediate and unconditional release.
Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)