Cambodian court charges trio that assisted farmers with incitement

A court in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province has charged three men with incitement after they advised farmers of their constitutional rights, prompting more than 200 farmers to descend on the capital to call for their release.

On the afternoon of May 17, authorities in Kratie province arrested Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community President Theng Savoeun and 16 of his colleagues for “inciting social unrest” and “conspiracy to commit treason.”

According to local rights group ADHOC, the arrests took place after the 17 met with farmers in Ratanakiri to discuss agricultural techniques and their rights as Cambodian citizens. That same day, police set 14 of the detainees free after they agreed to thumbprint a statement pledging that they would no longer conduct training sessions.

The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court formally charged Theng Savoeun and two others – Thach Hach and Nhel Pheap – and ordered them detained at the provincial prison.

Nearly six days later, the trio remain in detention and have been refused access to lawyers or family members – visits they are guaranteed after 24 hours in custody, according to Cambodian law.

Over the weekend, some 200 farmers – mostly women – from various provinces traveled to the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh to demand their release, claiming that they had provided assistance and done nothing illegal.

‘My son is not a dog’

Among them was Theng Savoeun’s mother, Toch Satt, who vowed that she will not leave the premises until her son is freed.

“Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, I urge you to resolve this case – get it done today or I will not go home,” she shouted in front of the ministry on Monday, three days after joining other farmers in the capital to protest the detentions. 

“My son is not a dog, he is a human being,” she said. “I regret that you arrested my son, who did nothing wrong. My son serves the interests of the people.”

Theng Savoeun, who is currently being detained, is the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community, which was established in 2011 to help farmers’ communities whose land was encroached. Credit: Theng Savoeun Facebook

Other protesters – several of whom were carrying infants – held photos of the three detainees and cardboard signs calling for their freedom.

One protester from Koh Kong province named Keut Neou told RFA Khmer that she and others had arrived in Phnom Penh to protest on May 19 and had since run out of money. She said they have been staying for free at a Buddhist temple in the suburbs, but are unable to afford rides downtown to the ministry.

“We are poor people and farmers – we have no money, so we all decided to walk,” she said.

Another farmer from Koh Kong named Nhel Sreymom urged Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, to help find justice for the three detainees.

“Please, Samdech father and mother, help find a solution for them,” she said, using an honorific for the prime minister. “These three people are innocent.” 

‘Planning peasant revolution’

Ministry of Interior officials on Monday met with 10 farmers’ representatives and accepted a petition calling for their release. The officials said Hun Sen will examine and consider their demands.

ADHOC human rights spokesperson Soeung Senkaruna urged the Ratanakiri court to reconsider the charges against Theng Savoeun, Thach Hach and Nhel Pheap.

“If the charges still have reasonable doubt, the court should hold off on the charges because, from my view, Theng Savoeun has done a lot of work to help farmers to supplement the assistance of the government,” he said.

Attempts by RFA to contact Ratanakiri Provincial Police Commissioner Ung Sopheap and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak about the case went unanswered Monday.

However, Khieu Sopheak told local media group CamboJa on May 19 that Theng Savoeun and his associates were involved in “planning a peasant revolution.”

About 200 farmers across the country protest in front of the Ministry of Interior to demand the release of Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community and two of his associates who are being detained. Credit: Citizen journalist

The Cambodian Farmers’ Community Association has vehemently denied the allegations, saying it only instructed farmers on agricultural laws and techniques. The group, which claims to have a membership of around 20,000 people across Cambodia, was founded in 2011 to assist farmers from 10 communities who say their land was encroached on.

‘Crackdown’ on rights groups

Local rights groups – including LICADHO, ADHOC and the Cambodian Center for the Defense of Human Rights – are monitoring the case and told RFA that the arrests not only threaten the Cambodian Farmers’ Community Association, but also undermine the work of civil society.

The case has also drawn the attention of international rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said his organization was “appalled” by the arrests and violation of laws that allow the three access to lawyers, calling it an example of how authorities “blatantly violate basic freedoms of association and expression, and totally disregard Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.”

Robertson also called authorities out for harassing supporters demanding the trio’s release, noting that police in Koh Kong stopped a minivan carrying Cambodian Farmers’ Community Association members and prevented them from leaving the province.

He linked the arrests to what he called a “crackdown” on NGOs and civil society groups in Cambodia ahead of the July 23 general election, “where any sort of challenge, real or perceived, to the government is met with a maximum display of intimidation and punishment.”

“Cambodia should immediately and unconditionally let the CCFC 3 go free, and halt the campaign of harassment and abuse against the CCFC and other Cambodian NGOs who dare to stand up and exercise their civil and political rights,” Robertson said.

Illegal land grabs by developers or individuals are not uncommon in Cambodia, where officials and bureaucrats can be bribed to provide bogus land titles. Disputes over land are one of the major causes of social disturbances throughout Southeast Asia.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Samean Yun. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

INTERVIEW: ‘It’s hard for those in power to tolerate any kind of satire’

The axing of a satirical political cartoon by a major Hong Kong newspaper was due to “political pressure” from government officials, cartoonist Zunzi told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview.

Hong Kong’s Chinese-language newspaper of record, the Ming Pao, last week canceled  Zunzi’s regular comic strip following an onslaught of public criticism from government officials.

Staff at the paper expressed “regret and a sense of helplessness” over the move.

Cartoonist Huang Jijun, 68, who had cartoons in every edition of the now-shuttered pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper for 26 years, told RFA Mandarin that the canceling of his column reflects the overall political climate in Hong Kong, where civil rights have been drastically rolled back under the 2020 national security law.

“Of course it was due to political pressure,” he said. “It wasn’t that my fee was so low that I couldn’t keep doing the cartoons.”

“It’s clearly linked to the political situation: they wanted [the Ming Pao] to stop publishing my column,” Huang told Radio Free Asia, after earlier declining to comment on the reasons for the move.

“The government sent a warning message to the newspaper, allowing them to deal with it flexibly,” he said. “In times of tight [political] controls, when the accusations are flying around … everything is under the microscope … anyone can be accused of a crime.”

Books of Huang’s political cartoons were also recently removed from public libraries in the city.

“They think these books will have a negative impact on society,” he said. “They don’t want the public to be influenced by them, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing this. Every move they make is with one eye on its public impact.”

Censorship growing

Huang said the national security law, imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in 2020 to clamp down on public dissent in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, makes it harder to predict just how far the authorities are willing to go with public censorship.

“It’s hard to tell whether the current situation will lead to an even tighter crackdown by the authorities,” he said.

Hong Kong is in the throes of a political censorship campaign targeting all forms of public expression, Huang said.

“This isn’t about there being a problem with cartoons; the problem comes from the satire [they depict],” he said. “They want to keep to a minimum anything that is funny, or pokes fun at something.”

“It’s very hard for those in power to tolerate any kind of satire.”

Cartoonist Huang Jijun, who uses the pen name Zunzi, shows his works, after his comic strip has been scrapped from the local newspaper Ming Pao in Hong Kong, May 15, 2023. Credit: Reuters

Huang, who has previously published a compendium of cartoons marking the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre, said he is unlikely to be producing any new work to mark this year’s anniversary.

“Naturally, we used to do our best to mark the June 4 massacre before, but the risks are much higher now,” he said. “Actually, my not producing a cartoon [for the anniversary] is a pretty good reflection of the way things are.”

“If someone who used to produce a cartoon every year, like the [now-banned] candlelight vigil in Victoria Park where people used to go every year, suddenly stops, the world will pay attention,” Huang said.

“Once the cartoons stop, you can count how many years it has been since the last cartoon about June 4,” he said. “Time left blank leaves a clear historical record.”

No plans to leave

But Huang said he still has no plans to leave Hong Kong, despite an ongoing exodus of middle-class professionals and wealthy families alike.

“I will stay in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been through dark times before, and people back then would have said they were the darkest of times,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think that Hong Kong today is living through the darkest times.”

“People should try to go in the direction of the light … and work together to make it not quite so dark,” Huang said, citing his first political cartoon that riffed on political and social uncertainty in Hong Kong amid ongoing negotiations between Britain and China over the city’s future.

When asked to reflect on the last four decades of his political cartoons, Huang likened Hong Kong to a paper kite tossed about in the wind, not knowing where it is headed, and with no say in the matter.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

UN working group faults Vietnam for arbitrary detention of climate activist

A U.N. working group of independent human rights experts has called on Vietnam to immediately release a detained climate activist serving a five-year prison term for tax evasion, saying he had been arrested arbitrarily and tried unfairly. 

Lawyer and environmentalist Dang Dinh Bach, 44, who had campaigned to reduce Vietnam’s reliance on coal was arrested June 2021 and then sentenced to five years in jail. 

Bach was director of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Center, which works with communities affected by development, poor industrial practices and environmental degradation to help them understand and enforce their rights.

Authorities accused him of not paying taxes for sponsorships his organization received from foreign donors. He is one of four Vietnamese environmental activists sentenced for tax evasion—a charge that rights groups say is politically motivated. The others were Nguy Thi Khanh, Mai Phan Loi and Bach Hung Duong.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Bach’s trial did not follow international standards of a fair trial and violated many fundamental rights stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Hunger strike planned

Bach’s wife, Tran Phuong Thao, who is also a human rights activist, told Radio Free Asia on Monday that her husband has continued his fight for justice in jail by eating only one meal a day since March 17.

He will go on a full-blown prison hunger strike as of June 24, on the second anniversary of his arrest, she said. 

Though Bach has complained about what he says is his wrongful conviction and lodged a petition with a Hanoi court, authorities are pressuring his family to pay off 1.3 billion dong, or about US$55,300, for the tax he allegedly failed to pay, Thao said. 

Besides freezing Bach’s four bank accounts, authorities also threatened to seize their home, she added.  

The U.N. working group also called on the government to give Bach satisfactory compensation and allow the group to visit Vietnam since its last visit was in 1994. 

“The Working Group considers that, taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Bach immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law,” it said in a 16-page opinion dated May 11 and released late last week. 

On Nov. 30, 2022, the working group asked Hanoi to provide detailed information about Bach’s situation, but the Vietnamese government did not provide a response by the February 2023 deadline.

The International Coalition of Climate Justice and Human Rights Organizations will hold a peaceful relay hunger strike — a form of protest in which a number of persons go without food by turns — on May 24–June 24 in support of the call to release Bach.

Participating activist organizations, including members of the Global Network of Movement Lawyers to which Bach’s group was a part of before it was forced to shut down, pledged to join the campaign. They hope the strike will pressure Hanoi to review Bach’s case and that he will not have to go on his own hunger strike.

“It’s crucial for human rights lawyers and environmental defenders to stand up worldwide for our colleague in Vietnam,” said Meena Jagannath, director of global programs and coordinator of the Global Network of Movement Lawyers at Movement Law Lab. “This kind of solidarity is vitally important for the future of the region and the planet.” 

Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen publicly warns foreign embassies against ‘arrogant’ interference

Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly lashed out at Western diplomats on Monday, saying they have insulted him in the past by visiting with detained opposition leader Kem Sokha. 

“In the future, don’t be arrogant again in the application of your foreign policy,” he said at the inauguration of a tire factory in Sihanoukville. 

“The diplomats in Phnom Penh should understand it,” the prime minister said. “It is because of you, you made me not trust you. Therefore, why should I do work that is in favor of you?” 

Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 on treason charges. He was finally sentenced in March to 27 years in prison in a verdict widely condemned as politically motivated.

It was unclear if any diplomats have visited Kem Sokha since the March verdict. Before his sentencing, ambassadors from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States often met with him at his Phnom Penh home while he was under house arrest.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman went to see Kem Sokha during a June 2021 trip that included a meeting with Hun Sen. An angry prime minister later said that she secretly went to Kem Sokha’s home without informing the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy walks toward Phnom Penh Municipal Court during the court verdicts against Kem Sokha in Phnom Penh on March 3, 2023. Credit: Heng Sinith/AP

‘Foreigners who insult me’

On Monday, Hun Sen said he doesn’t “trust foreigners who insult me, insult my sovereignty, insult myself when they worked with me and at the same time worked with others.”

He issued a similar public warning in April when he cautioned “Cambodia’s foreign friends” who support opposition party groups and politicians. 

“You have to choose between an individual group that breaks the laws and the government,” he said. “Please choose one. If you need those who were penalized by law, please do so, and you can then break diplomatic relations from Cambodia.”

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Stephanie Arzate told Radio Free Asia that the United States doesn’t “support any particular individual, institution, or political party” in Cambodia. But American officials “regularly meet with a wide range of individuals, in accordance with diplomatic norms and practices.”

Kem Sokha has always denied the charges that led to his arrest, which took place months after the party he co-founded – the Cambodia National Rescue Party – had a strong showing in that year’s local commune elections. 

The arrest kicked off a broad government crackdown against civic activists and journalists. A similar crackdown has taken place in recent months against activists for the Candlelight Party, which has taken the CNRP’s place as the country’s main opposition party. 

Kem Sokha, former leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, greets supporters from a car in Phnom Penh on March 3, 2023. He was sentenced in March to 27 years in prison in a verdict widely condemned as politically motivated. Credit: Heng Sinith/AP

‘Just a political trick’

Last week, the National Election Committee ruled that the Candlelight Party couldn’t appear on the ballot for the July parliamentary elections, citing inadequate paperwork.

Australia-based social development researcher Seng Sary said Hun Sen may have brought up the embassy visits to divert public attention ahead of the election and to show he is a strong politician who isn’t afraid to confront powerful countries.

“This is just a political trick to draw support and to show power to the people and to the opposition leadership,” he said.

Hun Sen also said on Monday there remains a possibility that Kem Sokha could be pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni – but only if the prime minister chooses to make the request in writing to the king.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

Religious leaders ask US to sanction Vietnamese government officials

Religious leaders in Vietnam have asked the U.S. government to punish Vietnamese officials involved in religious persecution activities, calling for use of the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction those involved in human rights violations.

Representatives from the Interfaith Council of Vietnam met with American diplomats and an official from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom commissioner at Giac Hoa Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday. 

Officials from Catholicism, Buddhism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Caodaism and Protestantism urged the Biden administration to make use of a 2016 law, named after a Russian anti-corruption whistleblower, that allows the United States to freeze the assets of foreign government officials and ban them from entering the U.S.

Hua Phi, the administrative clerk of the Caodai religion, told Radio Free Asia that he had to leave his home in the central province of Lam Dong three days in advance of the meeting to avoid police surveillance.

Security forces prevented him from traveling to an Interfaith Council of Vietnam meeting in April, he said.

RFA emailed the People’s Committee of Duc Trong district to seek a response on Hua Phi’s allegations but didn’t receive a response.

Vietnamese Catholic dignitaries march in a procession for a mass on the occasion of a pastoral visit by Cardinal Fernando Filoni (not pictured) in Hanoi on January 20, 2015. Credit: AFP

Earlier in the week, the U.S. State Department criticized violations of religious freedom in Vietnam, saying in an annual report that the country’s legal framework “provides for significant government control over religious practices.”

Vietnamese law also “includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity,” according to the 2022 International Religious Freedom Report, which provides an overview of the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the report on Thursday, saying it was “lacking in objectivity.” 

Compliance with the law in Vietnam includes registering the religion with the government. Currently the government has recognized 36 religious organizations belonging to 16 religions that include Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Caodaism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Islam and Baha’i.

Those belonging to unrecognized religions are not allowed to operate freely. Hanoi considers the unregistered groups to be illegal and law enforcement has prevented these groups from meeting or carrying out religious rituals or ceremonies.

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Matt Reed.

Thai police investigating shooting death of officially recognized Lao refugee

Thai police are investigating the shooting death of a Lao democracy activist who was living in Thailand as an officially recognized refugee and had been planning to move to Australia in the near future, Radio Free Asia has learned.

Bounsuan Kitiyano, 56, is a former member of the Free Laos group, which over the past few years had staged several protests in front of the Lao Embassy in Bangkok demanding that Vientiane respect human rights and freedom of expression. 

The shooting was the latest of several recent attacks on Lao activists on Thai soil.

Police said Bounsuan had been living in Thailand for the past four or five years. His body was found on May 16 near a forest in the eastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, which borders Laos. 

An initial investigation found that he had been shot three times while riding a motorcycle. Police also found his ID card issued by the Thai office of the UN refugee agency, or UNHCR, confirming his official status.

The body was transported to a nearby hospital for further investigation, but by May 19, it had already been collected by a close friend for ceremonial burial purposes.

Prior to his death, friends had visited Bouansuan at his home, Thongkham Soukhuan, a 74-year-old villager, told local media.

“He asked to use a motorcycle so he could visit his friends,” Thongkham said. “We then lost contact with him and they found him dead on May 16.”

Motive explored

In a report published Sunday on the English website for Thai news outlet Khao Sod, police said there were two possibilities: either he was killed for his opposition to the Lao government, or his relatives are angry with him because he caused the Lao government to harass and arrest them. Khao Sod did not elaborate on the situation with his family.

The police department in Ubon Ratchathani’s Simeuangmay district confirmed the incident to RFA’s Lao Service, but the officer responding to the query was not able to provide further information on orders of the department’s upper management. 

Bounsuan’s death was an “obvious” example of the Lao government taking extreme measures to silence dissidents both at home and abroad, Andrea Giorgetta of the Bangkok office of the International Federation for Human Rights told RFA.

It is shocking that Thailand, which used to be a safe destination for foreign activists fleeing repression in their respective countries, has become a very dangerous place for them,” she said. 

“It’s imperative that the diplomatic community in Bangkok and Vientiane urge the authorities in both Laos and Thailand to hold perpetrators of recent attacks against Lao activists in both countries accountable,” she said.

RFA’s inquiries to the UNHCR office in Thailand received no response as of Monday.

Thongkham said that for a short time, Bounsuan had returned to Laos, living in hiding in Pakse city, in the southern province of Champassak, but he fled to Thailand again after he found that it was not safe to live in Laos. 

He had plans to go to Bangkok in the near future to file documents so he could go to Australia as an asylum seeker.

The Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos is preparing to inform the United Nations Human Rights Council about Bounsuan’s death, Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiese, the organization’s president, told RFA.

Translated by Phouvong. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.