As the Onslaught on Cambodian Union Leaders Continues, a Judicial Decision is Expected

Rong Chhun is charged with ‘incitement,’ and if convicted, he may face up to two years in prison.

In the midst of the country’s ongoing crackdown on critical voices, a Cambodian court will decide on Wednesday whether famed labor rights campaigner Rong Chhun is guilty of “incitement.”

The issue appears to derive from Rong Chhun’s comments about peasants’ land rights along the Cambodia-Vietnam border, and it is being widely followed by the local and international communities. If proven guilty, the campaigner, who is in his early 50s, may face up to two years in prison.

“Rong Chhun is one of Cambodia’s most tireless defenders of labour rights,” said Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights group. “His continued imprisonment at the height of a global pandemic needlessly puts his health at risk and he should be released and all charges against him dropped.”

Rong Chhun was apprehended at his house on July 31st of last year and has been in prison since then.

Rong Chhun, the head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, was charged with “incitement to commit a criminal or provoke social disorder” a month after his arrest, based on a social media post about the Cambodia-Vietnam border demarcation.

Image Source: AL jazeera

Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge more than 40 years ago, the border has been a delicate topic in Cambodia, where anti-Vietnamese prejudice is still strong. The opposition has tried to capitalize on anti-Vietnamese sentiment by accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government of being too generous with Cambodia’s wealthier neighbor.

“If the court is independent, I believe it will drop charges against my uncle. He did not cause chaos or incite anyone,” said Rong Vichea, 28, Rong Chhun’s nephew who is worried his uncle could be infected with COVID while in prison.

“My uncle’s health is not good. He looks skinny.”

Cambodia has a lengthy history of oppressing activists, human rights campaigners, and political opponents. Over the course of his career, Rong Chhun has been arrested and imprisoned several times, while a growing number of activists, monks, and rappers have been accused with “incitement.”

“The charges and entire trial of Rong Chhun have been politically motivated from the start, aimed at one thing only: putting Cambodia’s most active trade union leader behind bars for his criticism of the government and its policies,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

“He should have never been arrested in the first place, and the charges against him should be dropped.”

Civic space is shrinking

The UN secretary-general detailed how Cambodia’s “civic and democratic space” had been diminishing, and how human rights and civil society organizations’ activities had been exposed to “undue interference, intimidation, or harassment” in a 2020 report by the UN Human Rights Office in Cambodia.

“We urge the authorities to be vigilant to ensure that criminal law is not used to restrict the legitimate activities of human rights defenders working to promote the protection of human rights,” said Liz Throssell, the spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva.

According to the UN, at least 24 human rights advocates are now imprisoned, 12 of whom are women, for exercising their rights or voicing their concerns in person or online. Since the main opposition party was outlawed before of the 2018 elections, hundreds of opposition members have been jailed.

After being found guilty of inciting acts of violence and blocking traffic during a protest over pay in late 2013 and early 2014, Rong Chhun was among six union officials who were given two-and-a-half-year suspended sentences in December of that year.

They were also compelled to compensate people who were harmed with more than $8,600.

The conviction was later overturned by a higher court, owing to threats from the European Union to revoke Cambodia’s duty-free trading status under the Everything But Arms agreement, according to union leaders.

“The treatment of labour union leaders by governmental authorities in Cambodia has a volatile history and has been the subject of concern by various international and regional authorities, including the International Labor Organization, the European Commission, and certain United Nations Special Rapporteurs,” the American Bar Association wrote in a November 2020 report.

The controversial Trade Union Law, as well as the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), which was passed in August 2015, have raised the stakes for those who protest.

“Labor organizers are individually targeted with criminal prosecutions, in which the slow-moving criminal trial process becomes a punishment in and of itself,” the report said.

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Union leaders have also been subjected to threats and violence.

In January 2004, Chea Vichea, the previous leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers, was shot dead near Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument with the assistance of hundreds of fellow workers. He rose to fame as a result of his efforts to raise the minimum wage by organizing protest after demonstration. His assailants have yet to be apprehended and prosecuted.

In 2020, the World Justice Project (WJP) placed Cambodia second to bottom out of 128 countries on its rule of law index. Cambodia was placed 15th out of 15 countries in East Asia and the Pacific by WJP. The country’s ranking is based on factors such as government power limits, lack of corruption, fundamental rights, civil justice, and regulatory enforcement.

While some believe the issue will be dropped, others are concerned that the government would try to make an example of Rong Chhun.


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