The Ministry of Interior yesterday confirmed that certain civil society organisations and their members are being “monitored” following accusations, levelled during the Supreme Court hearing on the dissolution of the opposition party on Thursday, that they participated in a purported “revolution”.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in a widely condemned ruling for allegedly trying to topple the government. In their presentations to the court, Interior Ministry lawyers named four groups and individuals as accomplices in their so-called “lotus revolution”, an accusation all the groups denied yesterday.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) was accused of colluding with the US to overthrow the government, the same charges aimed at its founder, Kem Sokha, who would later go on to lead the CNRP, and who is currently in pretrial detention on charges of “treason”.
Election watchdog Comfrel, meanwhile, was accused of colluding with the opposition to undermine the 2013 elections. Independent media advocate Pa Nguon Teang was accused of initiating the so-called “Black Monday” protests, which called for the release of jailed rights workers.
A video of unionist Vorn Pov leading a post-election protest in 2013 was also submitted.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that while no formal investigation is underway, the groups and individuals are being “monitored” to see whether they have abandoned their alleged revolutionary tendencies.
“If the individual does not give up the stance or plan, we will take action,” he said.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Hun Sen addressed rumours that Pov fled the country, urging him to return and promising there would be no further repercussions.
“Yesterday I also text him on WhatsApp . . . ‘Please come back and participate in your work . . . You are the witness and no one is going to charge you,’” Hun Sen said in a speech.
Pov yesterday denied that he fled, saying he visited an affiliate office near the Thai border, but welcomed Hun Sen’s reassurances. “Before we worried, but when [Hun Sen] says like that, it gives people warmth,” he said, adding that he was not part of a revolution, but just wanted to “protect the interests of informal workers”.
CCHR Director Chak Sopheap said the organisation is “naturally concerned” by the accusations. “Given the reality of our strict independence from all political parties, we are hopeful that CCHR will be free to continue our work to promote human rights in Cambodia,” Sopheap said via email.
Yoeurng Sotheara, legal officer at Comfrel, said the organisation had not been aware that it was named during the Supreme Court hearing.
“We deny that we are politically biased,” he said, calling the accusations “groundless”.
Sotheara said Comfrel only wants to see “free and fair elections”, regardless of the victor.
He added that the accusations may be a form of intimidation, acknowledging that Comfrel is “one of the NGOs who stand in the front line to criticise”.
Nguon Teang – head of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), which oversees independent media outlet VOD – is currently abroad. Nop Vy, acting director of CCIM, denied the accusations.
“I want to urge that we are just working to promote freedom of press and freedom of expression,” he said.
“We used to be criticised by the government in the past, even though we work professionally,” Vy added.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the threats are part of a broader government “plan” to crackdown on dissent.
“By naming certain groups in submissions to the Supreme Court, it looks like the lawyers are tipping the government’s hand on who is next for rights violating actions by the authorities,” he added, calling for diplomats to act to protect the individuals and groups named.
Naly Pilorge, of the rights group Licadho, said it was “alarming” that “the normal work of CSOs relating to elections, media and human rights would now be deemed as crimes”.