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Source: Amnesty International NZ

The Cambodian authorities must end their relentless assault on young human rights defenders and others peacefully expressing their political opinions, said Amnesty International today after a recent spate of arrests. 

“These arrests are a shocking, all-out assault on Cambodia’s youth. Instead of encouraging the new generation of young Cambodians to fully participate in shaping the country’s future, Hun Sen’s government is determined to stamp out dissent in all walks of Cambodian life, from the clergy to the arts”, said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director of Campaigns. 

Ten young people including a Buddhist monk and a musician have been arbitrarily detained and charged with ‘incitement’ between 13 August and 7 September.  

All ten detainees are considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, meaning they have been detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their protected human rights. Amnesty International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience wrongfully detained in Cambodia and throughout the world. 

Relentless spate of arrests in recent weeks 

On Friday, 4 September, three environmental human rights defenders affiliated with activist group Mother Nature Cambodia – Thun Ratha, a 28-year-old man, Long Kunthea, a 22-year-old woman, and Phuong Keorasmey, a 19-year-old woman – were initially arrested and later charged with “incitement to commit a felony” under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code on Sunday, 6 September.  

The arrests occurred as Long Kunthea sought to conduct a one-woman procession through Phnom Penh towards the residence of Prime Minister Hun Sen, with the stated aim of discussing environmental concerns with him. 

Also on Friday, 22-year old rapper Kea Sokun was arrested in Siem Reap and charged with incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. Sokun is understood to have been targeted on the basis of a song he released in April called ‘Dey Khmer’ (which translates to ‘Khmer Land’) in which he commented on long-running sensitivities regarding the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. The song reached 1.3 million views on YouTube before being deleted under unknown circumstances. Other versions of the song were later re-posted on YouTube.  

In addition to these youths and environmental activists, at least five political activists and one trade unionist have been arbitrarily detained since the end of July amid an escalating crackdown on all forms of dissent. 

Detention of prominent rights defender spurred a string of further arrests 

Prisoner of conscience and prominent human rights defender Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was arrested on 31 July and charged with incitement after commenting publicly on land rights concerns at the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.  

On 13 August, two youth activists from Khmer Thavrak – Hun Vannak, a 38-year-old man and Chhouen Daravy, a 28-year-old woman – were arrested while calling for the release of Rong Chhun. Hun Vannak has previously been imprisoned in retaliation for his work to expose illegal sand dredging and its impact on local communities in Cambodia.  

On Sunday, 6 September, two more human rights defenders – Venerable Koet Saray, a Buddhist monk, and Mean Prommony, vice-president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, were also arrested in Phnom Penh, apparently in retaliation for planning a demonstration at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to call for the release of Rong Chhun.  

On Monday, 7 September, two more youth activists were arrested, also apparently in retaliation for seeking to protest Rong Chhun’s imprisonment – Tha Lavy, a 20-year-old man affiliated with Active Citizens for Justice and Eng Malai (also known as So Metta), a 31-year-old woman affiliated with Khmer Thavrak. Eng Malai was arrested on Monday evening, shortly after leaving the Cambodian office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, where she had sought refuge. 

Several of the recent arrests relate to allegations of encroachment on Cambodian villagers’ land at the Cambodian-Vietnamese border – a highly-sensitive issue in the eyes of the Cambodian authorities. Although Amnesty International takes no position on border disputes or claims of encroachment, territorial disputes are matters of legitimate public interest and as such, the expression of views regarding the border is protected under international human rights law, as is the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, with very few legitimate restrictions.  

Recent youth-led protests 

In recent years, the Cambodian authorities have systematically suppressed the right to peaceful assembly by banning public gatherings and by attacking and criminalizing peaceful demonstrators. Despite this severe repression, youth-led protests have occurred regularly across Phnom Penh since Rong Chhun’s arrest, and the authorities have responded with abusive use of force and intimidation. On 18 August, 80 civil society groups in Cambodia called on the authorities to stop beating and arresting peaceful protestors. 

“Cambodian youth are saying loud and clear that they will not be silenced; they will not be intimidated; and that they have had enough. These daring young activists are standing up for the ideals of justice, equality and human rights. They must be protected and encouraged.” 

Authorities using repressive NGO law 

This Monday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior issued a statement justifying the crackdown on the basis that neither Mother Nature Cambodia nor Khmer Thavrak are registered under the repressive and widely-criticised Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), which has been repeatedly used to justify the repression of legitimate grassroots activism since its passage in 2015. Mandatory registration of all NGOs operating in a country violates the right to freedom of association (guaranteed under Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).  

Meanwhile, Cambodian authorities have stepped up their intimidation of youth organizations, independent unions and workers’ rights NGOs by conducting arbitrary police inspections of the offices and staff records of many prominent organizations throughout early September.