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Arrest of Cambodian Political Party Chief Over Vietnam Border Claims Marks Second in Two Weeks

2020-08-14 -- Authorities in Cambodia arrested the head of a small political party on Friday following comments he made criticizing the government's handling of a border dispute with neighboring Vietnam–marking the second such arrest in as many weeks.

Suong Sophorn, the president of the little-known opposition Khmer Win Party (KWP), was taken into custody from his home in the capital Phnom Penh by police who failed to produce a warrant, party spokesperson Yin Yoeun told RFA's Khmer Service.

"Suong Sophorn was arrested and sent immediately to Phnom Penh Municipal Police Headquarters without any warrant," he said, adding that "everyone was stunned by the arrest."

"None of the KWP's officials were allowed to visit him in police custody."

Yin Yoeun said party officials are preparing to issue a statement on the arrest and intend to call on foreign embassies to intervene in the case.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson San Sok Seiha told reporters Suong Sophorn was arrested for "incitement," citing a visit he made late last month to the border with Vietnam where he met with members of the public and made "false statements" that Vietnam had encroached on Cambodian territory.

He said Suong Sophorn had been arrested based on an order by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor, adding that the politician will be held at police headquarters before being sent to the court to be formally charged.

The KWP took part in Cambodia's 2018 general election but failed to win any seats in parliament. Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won all 125 seats in the National Assembly after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

Union leader

Suong Sophorn's arrest comes just two weeks after prominent union leader Rong Chhun was officially charged with "incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest" under Article 495 of Cambodia's Penal Code and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh on Aug. 1.

The Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) president had been arrested a day earlier for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along the border.

Last week, the KWP notified Phnom Penh city officials that it planned to lead a protest on Aug. 16 to demand Rong Chhun's release but was denied permission, prompting the party to release a statement calling the ban a violation of the freedom of expression, democratic principles, and Cambodian law.

Hours before his arrest, Suong Sophorn told RFA he intended to defy the ban and planned to issue a statement about the irregularities he discovered while visiting the border area, even if it meant being sent to jail.

"I will never change my position regarding the things I have witnessed [in relation to the border], he said, adding that he had done nothing illegal.

"I will fight for the interests of my people. I am a politician. I have my duty to protect our national sovereignty. I have to fight against social injustice. That's what I am supposed to do."

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA that if the authorities continue to arrest people expressing their concern over border issues, "it will only increase a perception of the government that it is restricting people's rights and freedom of expression."

Supporters charged

Rong Chhun's arrest has prompted near daily protests in the capital, one of which was violently dispersed on Thursday by police who arrested six of his youth supporters from the civil society group Khmer Thavarak.

On Friday, two of the arrested supporters–Chhoeun Daravy and Hun Vannak–were sent to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and formally charged, according to National Police Commission spokesperson Chhay Kim Kheoun.

Chhoeun Daravy was charged with "incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest," while Hun Vannak was charged with "obstructing the authorities," he said, while also rejecting claims that police had used violence against protesters on Thursday.

"The two people have been charged and placed under provisional detention," he said.

The four other Khmer Thavarak members– Chea Kunthine, Tha Lavy, Yang Seang Hay, and Svay Samnang–have been released, Chhay Kim Kheoun said.

RFA was unable to reach Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Kuch Kimlong for comment about the charges facing Chhoeun Daravy and Hun Vannak.

Khmer Thavarak member So Metha said in a post to Facebook Friday that the group is seeking a lawyer to represent the two and requesting assistance on their cases from international nongovernmental organizations. She said that she and other protesters had done nothing illegal in calling for Rong Chhun's release.

Licadho's Am Sam Ath told RFA that the charges against the two Khmer Thavarak members are "too severe" and urged the court to drop them to avoid international criticism.

He suggested the move was part of a bid by authorities to intimidate young people and discourage them from engaging in democracy and the fight for social justice.

"By doing so, the government cannot avoid being criticized for demoralizing young people who want social issues addressed," he said.

"This will do more harm than good to the rights and freedoms of people who are longing for justice."

Longstanding border issues

Unresolved border issues between Cambodia and Vietnam, former French colonies from the 1860s to 1954, have sparked incidents in the past, with the construction by Vietnam of military posts in contested areas quickly challenged by Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh.

In June 2015, activists from the CNRP were attacked by Vietnamese villagers when they went to inspect an area in Svay Rieng province where they said a road built by authorities in Vietnam's Long An province had encroached into Cambodian territory.

A joint communique signed by Cambodia and Vietnam in 1995 stipulates that neither side can make any changes to border markers or allow cross-border cultivation or settlement pending the resolution of outstanding border issues.

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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