TBONG KHMUM province — The country’s newest province has at least nine opposition activists in jail. Eight others are on the run.
But Toek Soklorn, 43, says she’s not backing down.
“For me, it’s about confronting reality, rather than running. If something happens when you’re running, no one knows the truth. But when something happens when you’re confronting things directly, it’s clear who’s responsible,” Soklorn says.
Her husband, Proa Chanthoeun, 44, was arrested in January, after more than a year of evading an arrest warrant. As a former member of the outlawed opposition CNRP, he supported exiled party co-founder Sam Rainsy’s bid to return to the country in November 2019. The attempted return led to more than 100 plotting and incitement charges against supporters across the country.
Chanthoeun would be away for two to three months at a time, then sneak home for a couple of days. He once spent a whole month at home, quietly and secretly, Soklorn says.
Once her husband was arrested, Soklorn herself became active. She traveled to Phnom Penh to join weekly protests outside the municipal court, part of a “Friday Women” campaign by several wives of jailed opposition members.
“Before I went to protest for my husband at the court, I felt scared. But once I went to protest, I was no longer scared,” Soklorn says. “Who’s going to help my husband if I don’t? He did nothing wrong.”
At one protest, she was hit in the back by police officers trying to dislodge the group of women. “It made me more brave,” she says.
“The women protesters have been protesting, getting arrested, so why do the men run away?” she adds.
In its latest annual report, Human Rights Watch says Cambodia holds more than 60 political prisoners, many opposition aligned.
Tbong Khmum, a province northeast of Phnom Penh and on the Vietnamese border, has faced a sharp crackdown against opposition supporters in the past several months. In September, seven were convicted of plotting for their involvement in Rainsy’s attempted return. One of them is in jail, and was given a seven-year sentence. Four of the others are on the run. Two were handed suspended sentences. A large gathering of supporters showed up at the court despite the pressure.
The following month, several activists planned to travel to Phnom Penh to join rallies celebrating the anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which ended years of war and intended to install a multiparty democracy in Cambodia. Su Yean, 45, was arrested after organizing the Tbong Khmum supporters to join the rally, and several others have been arrested since for their involvement.
Fourteen defendants, including Yean, were due to face trial on Thursday, according to a court schedule posted by human rights group Licadho. According to local supporters, 12 of them were related to the CNRP — eight of them in jail, four on the run — while the other two were land activists.
On Thursday, at the province’s new courthouse, the trial hearing was delayed due to a nationwide reshuffling of judges and prosecutors, officials at the court said.
Yean’s wife, Srey Seath, 43, says that in the lead-up to his arrest, the family was followed everywhere.
“Everywhere we went, they followed us. At the farm they followed us. Going home they followed us. At every stop they followed us,” Seath says. “I was tired of seeing them drive past the house, back and forth, back and forth.”
Since, she has also joined the women court protesters. Seath, sitting on a wooden platform under her house, seems distant before sparks start to fly.
“We resist and struggle because we don’t care about getting arrested, because we’ve been there often and nothing ever happened much,” she says. “We don’t give up. We will continue. I continue to love this.”
She says Yean has been involved in politics since the Sam Rainsy Party — one of two parties that combined to form the CNRP in 2012. The merger galvanized opposition support, and the party pushed the ruling CPP to near defeat in the 2013 national election. Four years later, more than 5,000 CNRP councilors were elected across the country in the 2017 commune elections, a major gain.
But later that year, party president Kem Sokha was arrested for alleged treason to overthrow the government, and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP. All local-level elected CNRP officials were removed from their positions. Continued support for the banned party has led to court action, including a mass trial of over 100 defendants in Phnom Penh.
Hing Phors, 29, is a witness for the Tbong Khmum trial. Before activists tried to join the Paris Peace Agreements rally, they printed green T-shirts for supporters to wear.
Phors says she was given one of the shirts and wore it with a group of friends at a coffee shop on the day before the rally. But she was taken into the district police station for questioning, with officers taking her phone and going through all her social media and messages, she says.
She says she simply lives on the same rural road as Yean and Seath.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with the law that a shirt that says, ‘Thank you for peace, but respect Article 2 of the Constitution’ is illegal,’” Phors says, verbose and chatty like it’s mere gossip. “The police said this shirt makes chaos and rebellion.”
Article 2 says Cambodia’s territorial integrity “shall be absolutely inviolable within its borders” as defined in historical maps internationally recognized in the 1960s. But long stretches of the Cambodia-Vietnam border remain undemarcated due to complicated disputes over maps, and claims that Cambodia is losing territory to its neighbor has been a popular — albeit racially tinged — opposition party line.
In October, on the anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, opposition activists were arrested after demonstrating near the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, and calling on China to respect the accords, which it signed, and protesting any Chinese military presence in Cambodia.
Last July, unionist Rong Chhun was arrested over a trip he made to Tbong Khmum to interview farmers about allegedly losing land to Vietnam, and a subsequent statement on his findings. Several activists, including members of youth group Khmer Thavrak, have been arrested for protesting for his release.
Tbong Khmum was only created in 2014, split off from Kampong Cham. As the country’s most populous province, Kampong Cham had seen talk of division since at least the late 1990s, but the 2014 split followed a hammering at the polls a year earlier. The ruling CPP won just 43 percent of the vote to the CNRP’s 52.
But the CPP would have been able to win within the bounds of the soon-to-be-formed Tbong Khmum. The Committee for Free and Fair Elections, an NGO, said at the time that the split was “concerning politically.”
“I don’t think this is for administrative purposes, this is to affect future elections,” then-director Koul Panha told The Cambodia Daily.
‘Spirit to Support’
Moeun Phalla, 61, says the last time she saw her husband was in February, as he went off to their farm in the afternoon on a motorbike strapped with a basket for bringing back fruit.
“He already told you, right? That one day he would be arrested,” Phalla says. Her husband, Om Yeath, who is in his late 60s, had been among opposition supporters rallying outside the old Tbong Khmum court in September, and he was interviewed by reporters.
Police officers who had spent months drinking coffee and eating noodles at the family’s small restaurant arrested him at the farm, she says.
“Now they never come. Maybe they were just keeping an eye on him,” she says, unhurried and with the perfect posture of an older generation.
His arrest this year was for incitement in relation to the green T-shirts, she says.
Yeath started in politics in 1998 with the Sam Rainsy Party. “He joined because he loved Sam Rainsy’s policies, democracy, and wanted to contribute to the nation,” she says.
Memot district police chief Hong Kim Hoeun at first denies that authorities have been tracking opposition supporters.
“There is no such thing,” Kim Hoeun says. “In our area, there has not been, and they can live freely and normally. They have equal rights like other people.”
But when asked about social order, he gives a different answer.
“We must pay attention, and anybody who conducts activities that impact social and national security, like inciting to make a movement or lying … authorities are obliged to keep eyes on such activities,” he says.
Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan adds that those who have been arrested are criminals.
“They have arrested only people who have done activities that serve the outlaw rebel group’s tricks,” Eysan says, referring to the dissolved CNRP. “People who have done normal political activities complying with the law, they will not be impacted.”
The CNRP is now illegal, and so is continuing to serve it, he says.
“The government’s goal is to extinguish small and little fires to prevent them from becoming a big fire. So for outlaw rebel activities, it does not matter whether they’re small or big. They are all illegal so they have to be responsible in the face of the law,” Eysan says.
Yem Chamroeun, 41, the son of Yeath and Phalla, says he rushed to the local police station and then to the court after he heard that his father was arrested.
“I saw my father coming down with handcuffs. I was shocked,” Chamroeun says.
He has felt socially isolated since. “When friends come to meet me, they feel scared, because they see me as one of the opposition,” he says. “If I mention anything small about politics, they say, ‘Your father’s in jail — do you want to go too?’”
Chamroeun says he is not politically active himself. “I’m not a politician but I’m a supporter,” he says.
“Right now, we don’t expect him to be released. We just want to see him and see how he’s doing,” he adds. “Since the CNRP is strong in this area, they use any means to reduce their popularity.”
His mother says she believes the party remains popular around town, despite the pressure. “My observation, when [people are] whispering,” Phalla says.
She adds that in Tbong Khmum, supporters still have an opposition spirit. They have still turned up to court and been willing to protest because they look out for one another, she says.
“The spirit to support them. It’s to show our support and have bravery,” she says. “It’s to show strong support, mentally, spiritually.”
She says that her request to authorities right now is simply to allow her to speak to her jailed husband and send him medicine.
“The whole family is still strong. We regret that they arrested him for a minor mistake. And we strongly still support the party,” Phalla says. “Worried and scared. But still resisting and struggling.”