Rong Chhun Protesters: “What We Do is for Our Nation”

Protesters gather outside the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh on Aug. 26 to demand the release of jailed unionist Rong Chhun.

As jailed unionist Rong Chhun’s request for bail was heard on Aug. 26, protesters gathered outside the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh to peacefully demonstrate against Chhun’s detention.



PHNOM PENH--For the second time this week, protesters gathered in support of jailed unionist Rong Chhun, who on Aug. 26 made a brief appearance in court to request bail. Some 20 supporters of Chhun peacefully assembled outside the Court of Appeals at 8.30 a.m. where they held photos of all the activists who have been jailed while protesting the detention of Chhun.



Surrounded by a much larger assortment of police officers, security forces and plain-clothes officials, the protesters largely stood in silence on the pavement opposite the court for hours on the morning of Aug. 26, 2020.



Em Bunnarith, personal assistant of Chhun, said that the group reiterates their call for the release of Chhun who was jailed on July 31 following an investigation he carried out into irregularities along the Vietnam-Cambodia border.



“I hope that [Prime Minister Hun Sen] and authorities rethink,” he told the assembled crowd. “They should free him today, free him from bail because we already know that arresting him was not right and if they don't want to lose country's interest, they should release him today.”



Em Bunnarith, Chhun's personal assistant, headed up the gathering outside the Court of Appeals on Aug. 26, 2020.



On Aug. 25, the Hun Sen ordered Var Kim Hong—chairman of the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee—to investigate the claims made by Chhun regarding land losses in Tboung Khmum Province. Chhun reported through the Cambodian Watchdog Council that villagers were complaining that Vietnamese border posts had encroached on their land.



“I think this is just a show for the public,” explained Bunnarith. “It’s to show that the government is involved and is looking into this case, but we never expected that so it is a good result.”



However, Bunnarith expressed concern that the government has already made up its mind and he warned that the findings of the investigation should be available for public scrutiny.



“Before the government has tried to ignore the issue and now that Rong Chhun has revealed the issue, everyone is interested and now the government is doing something, even if just for show, to calm down the residents and the people,” he added.



When reached for comment, Chin Malin—spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice—said he was busy and declined to discuss either the protests or Chhun’s case.



A Burgeoning Protest Movement in Phnom Penh



Today’s protest marks another day in a sustained campaign to free Chhun through peaceful assembly, with the number of protesters growing despite the arrests made earlier this month.



Wife of jailed former-opposition party member, Sok Bolima was also present on Aug. 26 and called upon national and international NGOs to join together in urging the government to free prisoners of conscience. Bolima’s husband Kheum Pheana, a former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) official, was arrested in April 2020 and charged with incitement to commit a felony.



Since then Bolima has led numerous protests outside the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh and delivered petitions to the embassies of democratic countries in a bid to garner international support for her husband and other jailed members of the now-dissolved opposition party.



Bolima has previously been beaten by authorities while protesting the arrest of her husband and other former CNRP officials. She has previously explained how she has lost her job and security forces continue to monitor her day-to-day life, but despite the apparent intimidation she faces, Bolima maintained that she will not stop protesting until her husband is free.



According to a statement issued by government body, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith and committee president Keo Remy held a video conference on Aug. 25 where Smith voiced concerns over restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, as well as the increase in pre-trial detainees and the resultant overcrowding in prisons amid the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.



However, the statement noted that Smith was not in support of violent protests or rallies that violated the law, but urged the government to amend laws relating to human rights, including the Penal Code, the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, the Draft Law on Public Order, and the Draft Law on the Establishment of National Human Rights Institutions.



While protesters maintain that their gatherings have been both peaceful and legal, the government has been shown forcefully removing banners, pushing protesters and dragging them into unmarked cars as this year’s crackdown on critics of the government continues following the arrest of Chhun.



For Bunnarith, there is little choice but to protest.



“I’m not afraid because even if I do nothing and the government wants to arrest me, then they will arrest me,” he said, adding that today’s protest proves that people are still willing to raise issues with the government’s handling of dissent.



“What we do is for our nation, what we do is for our people and so I’m not scared about sacrificing myself,” Bunnarith noted. “We try to do everything in accordance with the law, today for example we are not making too much noise, we are simply standing on the pavement and we’re not causing any problems for the security forces, we’re keeping the situation calm, but if they use any excuse to chase us out, let’s see.”



 


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