Senior government and municipal leaders denied Monday that recent newspaper articles criticizing Licadho were ordered by CPP-aligned officials intent on intimidating the human rights group.
“I am sure of this. I know this newspaper and there were no officials behind it,” Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said bluntly, despite the claim made by Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia) editor Pen Pheng that his paper used government sources for its articles.
Minister of Information Lu Laysreng (Fun) said Monday he was not aware of the recent row between Rasmei Kampuchea and Licadho, but doubted that the articles were orchestrated by government officials.
In several articles last week, Rasmei Kampuchea attacked Licadho for “releasing” all but nine illegal Vietnamese garment workers rescued from the GT Garment factory in February.
A total of 34 workers—Vietnamese nationals without valid residency papers—were taken from the factory and kept under Licadho’s care in Don Penh district. The paper claimed Licadho officials should “face justice” for allowing some of the Vietnamese to leave custody.
But both Licadho founder Kek Galabru and other human rights officials pointed out that Licadho had no authority to prosecute or even detain the workers, calling the paper’s possible call for prosecution unwarranted. One human rights official noted that no arrest warrants have been issued for the Vietnamese by the courts.
Following the publication of a third article in Friday’s Rasmei Kampuchea, Kek Galabru said the paper was continuing its campaign against her organization.
“I’m sorry for this. All this kind of information…incites people to hatred and violence,” Kek Galabru said.
Political observers have noted a long history of attacks against ethnic Vietnamese, and say last week’s articles could have been more an attempt to gain political favor with Cambodians than a move specifically against Licadho.
“I am not aware of any reason why Licadho would be singled out from the larger group of human rights groups,” said Norbert Klein of Open Forum, a media rights expert who monitors the Khmer press.
“Licadho is being used as a scapegoat for some larger discussion,” he said Monday.
It is not unusual for Cambodian officials to use anti-Vietnamese sentiments to their advantage.
The human rights community has pointed to several recent events—most notably Chea Sophara’s decision to evict hundreds of Vietnamese boat people from the Tonle San River’s banks.