Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, was jailed on Saturday after being detained by police and charged with defamation in Phnom Penh Municipal Court following a lawsuit filed on behalf of Prime Minister Hun Sen, officials said.
Rong Chhun, an outspoken critic of the government who last week threatened to go on a hunger strike to protest a controversial additional border agreement with Vietnam, was picked up in Poipet as he tried to cross the border into Thailand, a border police official said.
A clerk at the court said Friday that arrest warrants had been issued for four people named in the premier’s latest lawsuit: Rong Chhun, Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, Man Nath, president of the Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association, and Ear Channa, deputy secretary-general of the Student Movement for Democracy.
Rong Chhun was taken to the court under armed police escort at about 3:30 pm, and was charged under UNTAC law with defamation and inciting others to commit a crime, before being taken to Prey Sar prison, his lawyer, Peat Samnang, said.
The defamation charge carries a maximum one-year jail sentence, while the incitement charge under Article 60 of the UNTAC law carries up to five years.
Peat Samnang said the charges stemmed from an Oct 11 statement issued by the Cambodia Watchdog Council—to which Rong Chhun, Chea Mony, Man Nath and Ear Channa belong—that decried the border treaty.
Signatories to the statement vowed to go on hunger strikes at the National Assembly when lawmakers meet to ratify the treaty. They also called for Oct 11 to be considered an annual day of mourning.
Court officials could not be contacted Sunday, but Chhay Sinarith, director of the Interior Ministry’s information department, said he had warrants to call Chea Mony, Ear Channa and Man Nath to the Municipal Court for questioning.
“[You] can’t just allege because it affects the country,” he said of Rong Chhun’s criticism of the border agreement. “[You] need to prove what exact [land is lost to Vietnam]. The border issue is a life and death matter.”
Arriving at the court on Saturday, Rong Chhun thanked supporters and international and national media for following his case.
About an hour later, he was brought out of the court and said he had been arrested without a warrant, and urged teachers and union workers to stand together.
“To all teachers, we must be tied together,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. We must strengthen all members of the Independent Teachers’ Association.”
Bun Hor, head of a police committee that monitors the Poipet International Border Checkpoint, said Interior Ministry police had warned border police to look out for Rong Chhun, and officers recognized him as he tried to cross into Thailand via the Poipet gate.
“He was going to cross into Thailand,” Bun Hor said. “He had already crossed the first barricade but we saw him in time.”
Interviewed by telephone from Ireland on Sunday, Chea Mony said he was aware that a warrant for his arrest had been issued, a development that he described as an attempt to further curtail free speech and the growth of democracy in Cambodia.
“I am against signing [border agreements with Vietnam] because it is a matter of the life of the nation,” Chea Mony said, adding that he would nevertheless return to Cambodia but had not yet set a date. He will travel to France today.
“I have a plan to return to Cambodia,” he said. “I am not afraid and not worried. The government should be worried because it has issued the arrest warrant for a democratic person. They want to eliminate the voices that criticize the mistakes of the government.”
Chea Mony left Cambodia on Oct 11 to attend an international conference of human rights defenders from 72 countries that gathered in the Irish capital, Dublin, last week.
“I have already filed a complaint to the human rights NGO,” he said, adding that he would be seeking to raise international support for the plight of Rong Chhun, himself and others and for the court to drop all charges.
Rank-and-file Free Trade Union members may also be enlisted in the campaign, which may include strike action, Chea Mony said. “The only way may be to tell all the workers who are my members to hold a strike in order for the charges to be dropped,” he said.
Attempts to contact Man Nath and Ear Channa were unsuccessful Sunday, and their whereabouts could not be confirmed.
Hun Sen told investors, donors and diplomats Friday that he was suing four more unnamed people for falsely accusing him of ceding land to Vietnam when he signed a controversial additional agreement to the 1985 border treaty last week.
Rong Chhun’s arrest comes just days after Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive FM 105 Radio, was arrested and charged with defamation for broadcasting an interview that was critical of the premier’s border policies.
Heng You, deputy president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said Rong Chhun’s arrest would not stop the association’s work.
“His arrest is because of the Watchdog Council,” Heng You said, adding that he considered Rong Chhun a “patriot” who was only expressing his opinions.
Ly Quang Bich, political counselor at the Vietnamese embassy, declined comment on the arrests, saying they were a Cambodian affair.
One Western diplomat said that while freedom of the press and expression are important, they carry responsibilities that are especially important when dealing with sensitive issues like the border.
“How many wars started over border issues in the last hundred years?” the diplomat asked, citing the 2003 anti-Thai riots as an example of the explosive nature of the issue in Cambodia.
“What I am concerned about is that if heat continues to be generated on this issue, we could see problems here,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “An overexcited public statement by various people doesn’t necessarily result in the peace and calm needed for these negotiations.”
(Additional reporting by Pin Sisovann)