Cambodia: Ahead of elections, civil society and journalists face threats and criminalisation while restrictions on the opposition escalate
As national elections approach on the 23rd July 2023, the political and civic space environment continues to become more repressive. Trade union activists have been jailed, while NGOs are facing harassment and threats. The leading opposition Candelight party has been barred from running in elections, its activists face judicial harassment, and new legal amendments could bar the opposition if its calls for a boycott. Planned protests by the opposition were also shelved after threats of criminalisation. Protesters have also faced surveillance and threats. Press freedom continues to decline.
Union’s members jailed over strike action
Phnom Penh municipal court sentenced NagaWorld union president Chhim Sithar to two years in prison after convicting her of incitement and social unrest on Thursday for leading a strike which has been ongoing since December 18, 2021.https://t.co/SoCIYWEw9W— CamboJA News (@cambojanews) May 25, 2023
On 25th May 2023, a Phnom Penh municipal court convicted NagaWorld union leader Chhim Sithar alongside eight members of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU) of ‘incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security’ under Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code.
As previously documented, the LRSU members have been striking to demand better pay and working conditions at the NagaWorld Casino since December 2021 following mass layoffs at the casino that included the union’s entire leadership and a significant number of members.
Sithar was sentenced to two years in prison. Meanwhile, five other union members – Chhim Sokhorn, Hay Sopheap, Kleang Soben, Sun Srey Pich and Touch Sereymeas – were given 18-month court monitoring orders, and three more – Sok Narith, Sok Kongkea and Ry Sovandy –received one-year suspended jail sentences. Sithar was immediately transferred to Correctional Centre 2 (CC2) in Phnom Penh to serve the remainder of her sentence, which was approximately one year and four months, considering the time already served during her pretrial detention.
She was first arrested in January 2022 at a protest site near the casino before being bailed in March 2022. She was re-arrested in November 2022 upon returning from Australia.
The verdict sparked widespread condemnation, including from FORUM-ASIA, which called for the convictions of Chhim Sithar and labour rights activists to be overturned. The group said that the “unfair decision exemplifies the government’s contempt for democratic principles as well as Hun Sen’s attempts to silence critical voices months before the national elections.”
Judicial harassment of land rights activists
Ratanakiri Municipal Court charged 3 staff from the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)—President Theng Savoeun and his colleagues Nhel Pheap and Thann Hach—with plotting and incitement. The judge has just sent them for pre trial detention in RTK prison. #CCFCCambodia pic.twitter.com/eXcacehQfn— Tola Moeun (@Tolamoeun) May 22, 2023
In May 2023, a Cambodian court brought charges against three land rights activists from the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), a community organisation that defends land rights of farmers. The court charged them with plotting and incitement under articles 453 (plotting), 494 and 495 (incitement to commit a felony) of the Criminal Code, and ordered them placed in pretrial detention.
The authorities detained Theng Savoeun, president of the farmers’ group; Nhel Pheap, a senior officer; and Than Hach, a project officer, on 17th May while they were traveling to Phnom Penh after holding an internal team building and training workshop in Ratanakiri province. The Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak accused the CCFC of starting a “peasant revolution.”
Media reported that the police stopped the bus carrying the organisation’s staff members and pulled 17 staff off the bus. Police questioned them on the content and focus of the training workshop. While other staff were released, the police continued to hold the three leaders.
On 19th May 2023, a series of gatherings was held to demand their release. More than 200 farmers from five provinces gathered in front of the Interior Ministry with a petition, while gatherings were also organised between 19th and 22nd May 2023 by community members from Koh Kong, Preah Sihanouk, Svay Rieng, Kampong Speu and Kandal provinces.
The Interior Ministry then announced on 7th June that it had suspended the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community (CCFC) until the court has finished investigating the criminal cases.
On 19th June, after a meeting with CCFC, the Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the reinstatement of the coalition and for criminal charges against the three to be dropped. At the meeting he reportedly told CCFC not to hold protests but to “collect issues’ and “submit petitions to provincial authorities and the relevant ministries.”
Authorities shut down NGO event on humanitarian efforts
In late May 2023, the Interior Ministry sent a letter ordering the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies (CPSC) to cancel a conference planned for 30th to 31st May 2023 in Siem Reap.
CPSC is an NGO in Siem Reap that focuses on peacebuilding and conflict resolution in Asia. According to the Interior Ministry, their event, titled “Review of current humanitarian efforts, and seeking effective ways forward” focused on “current humanitarian efforts,” interferes with the internal affairs of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Member States and is contrary to the ASEAN Charter and the draconian Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO).
On 30th May 2023, CPSC issued a statement which confirmed that the meeting “would be called off to comply with the ministry’s letter.”
Prime Minister threatens NGOs with dissolution
On 4th June 2023, speaking at a meeting with workers in Kandal province, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Cambodia’s NGOs that they would be dissolved if they fail to report their financial statements to the government.
The Prime Minister’s comments came just days after the Interior Ministry ordered the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies to cancel a planned conference (see above).
Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO) requires foreign and domestic NGOs to submit financial donor documentation as well as annual financial reports. LANGO was passed in 2015, and human rights organisations as well as the United Nations criticised it for restricting civil society activities and human rights defenders.
CIVICUS said in a statement that the organisation was “extremely disturbed” by the threats on NGOs. It added: “Human rights groups had warned from the start that the LANGO empowers the authorities to shut down organisations or deny them registration based on vaguely, undefined, and broadly formulated concepts. We are clearly seeing how the law is now being politically used ahead of elections to create a chilling environment for NGO and activists.”
Opposition Candlelight party barred from running in elections
On 25th May 2023, Cambodia's Constitutional Council ruled that the National Election Committee's (NEC) decision to bar the Candlelight Party from running in the July 2023 election was valid and thus rejected an appeal against its disqualification. The ruling ensures that there will be no credible opposition challenging Prime Minister Hun Sen at the polls. The decision is final and may not be challenged.
The Candlelight Party is the unofficial successor to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which threatened to present a serious challenge to Hun Sen’s party in the 2018 elections. But it was dissolved just months ahead of the polls by a controversial court ruling that said it had plotted the illegal overthrow of the government.
On 15th May 2023, the NEC refused to register the Candlelight Party for failing to attach several documents, including a notarised copy of the party’s registration document with its application. However, party leaders say that the original copy of a 1998 government document recognising the party as a legal entity was confiscated by authorities in a 2017 raid on the headquarters of Candlelight’s precursor, the court-dissolved CNRP.
The decision was slammed by various groups, including FORUM-ASIA, who condemned the disqualification as it demonstrated the government's zero commitment to free and fair elections.
“By blocking the main opposition party from running in the upcoming election, using the failure of submitting all required original documents as a pretext, the regime of Hun Sen is demonstrating a complete disregard to upholding the principle of free and fair elections. This bureaucratic harassment against the opposition party should not be tolerated. It must end,” said Mary Aileen Bacalso, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.
Criminalisation of the opposition persists
Two opposition Candlelight Party commune councilors in Tboung Khmum province were arrested Thursday on incitement charges, allegedly for comments made in a telephone conversation.https://t.co/vm29ZLT3xW— CamboJA News (@cambojanews) June 10, 2023
The authorities have continued to target individual opposition members with judicial harassment.
Two opposition Candlelight Party commune councillors in Tboung Khmum province were arrested on incitement charges, allegedly for comments made in a telephone conversation. The two councillors representing Suong commune — Um Yet and Seang Han — were sent to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison for pre-trial detention on 8th June 2023.
‘Incitement’ provisions under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code have been used by the Hun Sen regime against the opposition and civil society. As Human Rights Watch reported, in 2022 Cambodia’s politicised courts pursued a series of mass trials against more than 100 political opposition members and dozens of human rights defenders. Prosecutors claimed the defendants engaged in “incitement to commit a felony” simply by exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful public assembly. Cambodia currently has more than 50 political prisoners behind bars.
Amendment of election law to further weaken opposition
On 23rd June 2023, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the election law prohibiting those who refused to vote in the upcoming elections from running as candidates in future ballots, including the communal council election and general election.
Sam Kuntheamy, Executive Director, Neutral & Impartial Committee for Free & Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), believed this action was the government's response to social media campaigns by Candlelight party supporters encouraging citizens to boycott the national election.
The amendment imposed criminal liability on individuals who disrupted or obstructed the voter registration process, as well as disrupted or obstructed the elections:
- Article 171 (new) lists hefty fines of 5,000,000 Riels (USD 1,200) to 20,000,000 Riels (USD 4,800) for those who incite others not to register to vote, or not to vote, spoil ballot papers, and buy votes through bribery.
- Those who violate Article 171 (new) will have their names removed from the voter list, be disqualified and stripped of their right to stand for election for five years.
- Under Article 143 (new), if the names of such violators are listed as candidates, the political parties must remove them or be fined from 10 million Riels (USD 2,400) to 30 million Riels (USD 7,300) by the National Election Commission (NEC).
- Under Article 142 (new), if the above incitements are committed by a political party, it will be barred from taking part in an election for at least five years by the NEC.
Opposition figures living in exile abroad, unable to vote in the upcoming election, would automatically be disqualified from future elections.
UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk said that the amendments “would constitute an overbroad restriction on the right to freedom of expression and a breach of the right of all citizens to stand for election, guaranteed by the Constitution of Cambodia and international human rights instruments.”
Labour rights groups and unions mobilise protests
On May 1, unions, associations, and NGO representatives gathered in front of the National Assembly to submit a petition urging the institution to address the essential needs of employees working in all economic sectors to promote and protect human and labor rights in Cambodia. pic.twitter.com/7xJTXempKY— CCHR Cambodia (@cchrcambodia) May 2, 2023
On International Workers' Day on 1st May 2023, representatives from unions, associations and NGOs gathered at Wat Phnom and outside the National Assembly to demand respect for labour rights and called for the harassment of unionists to be stopped. Some marched from Wat Phnom to the Cambodian Development Council, while another group marched from the National Assembly to Chea Vichea's statue. The groups submitted petitions to representatives from the National Assembly, Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, and Phnom Penh Capital Hall. Both marches were monitored by around 100 police officers and plainclothes officers.
On 7th May 2023, bus drivers from Giant Ibis Transport, a bus company which appears to be owned by tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group, protested in front of the company's headquarters in Phnom Penh, demanding compensation for unpaid wages. They gathered in Phnom Penh in April 2023 to demand severance and seniority payments they claim are legally owed after being laid off several years ago when the company ceased operations due to the pandemic.
Environmental group threatened following protest
On 22 May 2023, approximately 20 members of Mother Nature and youths marched to the Ministry of Environment to deliver a petition demanding authorities stop transferring Marine National Park to individuals or private companies and withdraw licenses issued to private companies. pic.twitter.com/XyjbxIwBhK— CCHR Cambodia (@cchrcambodia) May 23, 2023
On 22nd May 2023, approximately 20 members of environmental group Mother Nature and other youths marched to the Ministry of Environment to deliver a petition urging the government to stop granting land to private companies in Kirirom National Park, withdraw licences issued to them and return the land to the State.
According to Camboja, in June 2022, a state sub-decree granted a private company, One More Ltd, 221.94 hectares of forest land within Kirirom. One of the company’s directors is Choeung Sokuntheavy, daughter of tycoon Choeung Sopheap, whose husband is senator Lao Meng Khin.
Following the protest, on 24th May 2023, according to a statement published on Facebook, the Ministry of Environment condemned the protest stating that Mother Nature was an illegal organisation that has been dissolved, that the group had committed “illegal acts” and the action was “against the interests of Cambodian society.” Additionally, he stated that anyone who participated in the movement would be held “accountable”.
Opposition shelve rally after threats of arrest
Following the disqualification of the Candlelight Party, Cambodia's sole opposition, a large rally was planned for 3rd and 4th June 2023 in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh. However, the plan was shelved after Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly threatened to imprison the party's vice president Rong Chhun and other members.
Organisers had hoped that 10,000 people would march through the streets of Phnom Penh to protest against the National Election Committee’s decision to keep the party off the ballot for the 23rd July parliamentary elections.
On 2nd June 2023, according to Candlelight Party Vice President Rong Chhun, who disagreed with the decision, party officials decided to hold off on submitting a permit request for the protest to municipal authorities.
Press freedom rankings drop
Cambodia’s press freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published in May 2023 dropped from 142 to 147 out of 180 countries in their press freedom index.
The group said that “radio stations and newspapers were silenced, newsrooms purged, journalists prosecuted – leaving the independent media sector devastated. Since then, the few initiatives meant to sustain independent journalism have systematically drawn the wrath of ruling circles, as evidenced by the new wave of repression launched by the government ahead of the July 2023 elections.”
Most recently, in February 2023, Voice of Democracy (VoD), one of the few independent media outlets left in Cambodia, run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, was shut down. On 18th March 2023, the Information Ministry revoked the licences of three media outlets after they published reports exposing a senior government official’s role in land fraud.
Journalist in exile threatened
On 19th June 2023, Cambodia Daily Khmer journalist Taing Sarada, who is currently residing in the USA, received death threats from the popular social media commentator and licensed media publisher Pheng Vannak.
According to Camboja, in an audio message sent via Facebook to Sarada, Vannak stated: “If you were in Cambodia, I would slash your head with an axe and walk into prison, national traitor, you are so cheap,” and also made misogynistic comments about Sarada’s wife. On 22nd June 2023, similar threats on a Facebook Live broadcast were issued by Vannak.
Taing Sarada, who worked for Voice of Democracy, Radio Free Asia and currently hosts a talk radio show for the Cambodia Daily Khmer, had broadcast a regular Khmer language discussion programme, “Idea Talk” featuring civil society, human rights activists and opposition politicians. Sarada urged Cambodian authorities to take action against Vannak for his public and private threats of violence.
In mid-February, civil society groups urged the government to take legal action against Vannak after he used his Facebook page to make misogynistic and abusive comments about a female journalist working for Voice of Democracy.
Concerns about surveillance linked to facial recognition projects
On 15th June 2023, according to an interview on VOA News, Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, expressed concern around facial recognition projects by the government that could "lead to massive surveillance."
She said that the "authorities can use facial recognition technology to identify, track individuals and gather vast amounts of personal data without their consent…For instance, when a government uses facial recognition to monitor attendance at peaceful gatherings, these actions raise severe concerns about the safety of those citizens."
Activists in Cambodia are concerned about increased surveillance after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen awarded around USD 1 million to a local brand-licensing and wholesaling conglomerate HSC Group in March 2023 for government facial recognition projects, which could pave the way for the technology to be used against citizens and activists.
While the authorities justify surveillance on security grounds, human rights organisations expressed concerns about privacy violations, the possibility of profiling and discrimination, and the lack of strong data protection laws.
This is just the latest outcry around the right to privacy in the country. As previously documented, in 2021 the Cambodian government attempted to pass a repressive sub-decree to establish National Internet Gateway (NIG), a system that required all internet traffic in Cambodia to be rerouted through government servers, which critics compared to China's "Great Firewall." The implementation of NIG was delayed due to the disruption caused by the spread of COVID-19 in early 2022.
Oversight board suspends Hun Sen from Facebook and Instagram
On 29th June 2023, Meta's Oversight Board recommended that Prime Minister Hun Sen Facebook and Instagram accounts be immediately suspended for six months for inciting violence against the opposition.
The decision was made after reviewing an appeal regarding Meta’s handling of potentially violent speech from Hun Sen around a live video streamed on his official Facebook page, where he threatened his political opponents. The board of experts which issues binding content moderation decisions for the company’s Facebook and Instagram platforms, said that Facebook content moderators had erred by allowing the speech to remain on his Facebook page.
In January 2023, speaking at a road construction ceremony, he decried opposition politicians who accused his ruling Cambodian People's Party of stealing votes. "There are only two options. One is to use legal means and the other is to use a stick," the prime minister said. "Either you face legal action in court, or I rally [the Cambodian] People's Party people for a demonstration and beat you up." His remarks were spoken on Facebook Live and kept online as a video.
Hun Sen's video was reported five times by three different users for violating Meta's Violence and Incitement Community Standard. However, the moderators decided to keep the speech online because it was a "newsworthiness allowance," which "allows otherwise violating content to remain on Meta's platforms where the public interest value outweighs the risk of it causing harm."
The decision on Prime Minister Hun Sen's online incitement video could set a precedent for authoritarian governments, especially in the context of potentially violent threats against political opponents from a national leader before an election, such as those in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar.