A group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on Friday urged Cambodia’s government to stop arresting those critical of its policies, including opposition activists, saying the campaign is a violation of their rights and will lead to a “societal split” that will be ruinous for the nation.
In a joint statement, 30 local groups—including Adhoc, Licadho, and Comfrel—called on authorities and the nation’s courts to “stop persecuting and arresting members of the opposition [Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)] and other citizens in violation of their freedom of expression … and political participation.”
“The arrests are not only wrong but will lead the country into serious crisis and societal split,” the groups said.
Authorities have arrested and thrown in prison nearly 20 opposition officials or activists from the CNRP—which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 over an alleged plot to topple the government—since the beginning of the year.
Meanwhile, 17 former and active opposition officials and supporters have been the victims of assault by unidentified men over the same period, and no arrests have been made in any of the cases.
“We urge the government and the opposition party and all other stakeholders to return to the negotiating table to resolve their political issues for the sake of society, and to respect civil and political rights and freedom of expression,” the statement said.
Responding on Friday, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin said the government implements the law “without any discrimination against any particular group, in the interest of maintaining security and order.”
He suggested NGOs push the CNRP to “respect the law” if they don’t want to face the consequences of violating it.
“There are several different offenses and different charges [facing the CNRP],” he said. “If they don’t want to be punished, they shouldn’t break the law.”
Friday’s statement came on the same day the Swedish government announced it would be phasing out its existing bilateral strategy on development in Cambodia by July 1, 2021 and replacing it with one that focuses on “creating better conditions for a different, more democratic development in Cambodia.”
“The democratic space in Cambodia has been severely restricted in recent years,” Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Peter Eriksson said in a statement issued by the Embassy of Sweden in Phnom Penh, noting that such conditions had “made it difficult to pursue broad and close cooperation.”
“The Government has therefore chosen to redirect our development efforts to offer better support for change with regard to human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the country,” he said.
“We will continue to support civil society, human rights defenders and democracy advocates in Cambodia. Sweden stands up for the principles of democracy and speaks out when they are undermined.”
Last year, Sweden’s development assistance to Cambodia amounted to around U.S. $24 million in grants.
RFA was unable to reach government spokesman Phay Siphan or Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung for comment Friday.
Moeun Tola, a human rights campaigner and the executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), told RFA the Swedish government’s decision was likely in response to the decline in democratic freedoms since the dissolution of the CNRP.
The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
“The CNRP’s dissolution and reassigning of its parliamentary and commune council positions really disappointed the Swedish government,” he said, adding that Stockholm viewed the move as “an attempt to destroy democracy.”
“These days, we have seen little improvement in the human rights and democracy situations, which likely led the Swedish to reconsider [how their funding is spent].”
In mid-February the European Union announced plans to suspend tariff-free access in August to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for developing nations, for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on human rights and the ban on the CNRP.
Hun Sen has waved off the decision, which could decimate Cambodia’s key garment sector, as an interference in the country’s sovereignty.
Letter to UN expert
Both developments followed a June 7 letter from acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy to Rhona Smith, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, warning her that Cambodia’s government is using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to crack down on critical voices, and that the country needs the support of governments such as that of the EU more than ever.
“Even with the opposition banned and its leaders exiled or jailed, with many local community leaders harassed or detained, with independent media shut and with absolute control of every single segment of the captured state, the dictatorial drift is not slowing,” the letter said.
“Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 over a dozen CNRP members have fallen victim of the orchestrated oppression of the regime.”
Sam Rainsy called the arrests “swift delivery” by authorities of a recent threat by Hun Sen to arrest more CNRP members who speak out against economic hardships facing Cambodians during the outbreak. In recent weeks, the party has urged borrowers to suspend repayment of loans to banks and microfinance lenders, saying the government has failed to provide them with relief despite widespread layoffs.
He questioned why Hun Sen had insisted on “pushing the citizens into deeper poverty” instead of engaging with international partners to take advantage of offered aid, as well as working with the EU to avoid the withdrawal of EBA status.
“We know that through unity and by talking to each other in a free, democratic and open manner we can address the problems, heal the wounds and build a just and prosperous Cambodia,” Sam Rainsy wrote.
“To achieve that we rely on the continuous assistance of our international friends, in first line, the European Union.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.