A string of recent arrests of activists by Cambodian authorities has human rights groups and the United Nations calling for restraint and the right to free expression. The conviction of a former official in the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was the latest in a long series of convictions or detentions. Pen Mom was found guilty of conspiring with Sam Rainsy, the exiled opposition party leader, to overthrow the government of Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 35 years. Several others have been arrested or detained, including members of an environmental group, a Buddhist monk, and a Cambodian rapper.
Khmer nationalism is intensified by a longstanding border dispute with Vietnam, while fear of a civil society uprising is the primary concern for the Hun Sen regime. The arrests, detentions, and convictions began in late July when Rong Chhun, the President of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, accused the government of ceding land to Vietnam by installing a border marker in Tbong Khmum, which he claimed led to a loss of land and livelihoods for farmers along the border. Cambodian authorities accused Chhun of spreading misinformation and “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest.”
In August, Cambodia distributed a new map of the border with Vietnam and submitted it to the United Nations for recognition, in spite of activist warnings and protests suggesting Cambodia was ceding 3,000 hectares of territory to Hanoi. At the time of release, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh said that activists who criticize the regime’s handling of the border issue were extremists and “will not be forgiven” for making public statements.