Khmer News in En

Cambodia's Hun Sen Pushes For Tighter Restrictions on Political Opposition

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen lashed out again on Wednesday at critics of his 32-year rule, urging ruling-party lawmakers to enact legislation banning opposition figure Sam Rainsy from future political activity and asking his Interior Ministry to investigate the “status” of a now-dissolved election monitoring group.

Speaking in Phnom Penh to an audience of Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members at a celebration of the ruling party’s 66th anniversary, Hun Sen asked that Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties be amended to bar anyone convicted of a crime from involvement in politics.

“May I ask the CPP’s lawmakers to consider another amendment [to the law] that would ban any convict from engaging in such activities?” Hun Sen asked in a clear reference to former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy, who now lives in exile in Paris.

“We are not afraid of you. However, we also don’t want you to mess up the country’s achievements,” Hun Sen said.

Sam Rainsy, who left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid arrest in a defamation case brought by a former CPP foreign minister, resigned as CNRP chief after a law was introduced that bars convicted criminals from holding the top office in a political party.

The CNRP is now led by former deputy party leader Kem Sokha, who has faced legal problems of his own at the hands of Cambodian courts widely viewed as controlled by the country’s ruling party.

Speaking earlier in June during a call-in show with RFA’s Khmer Service, Sam Rains—who has continued to criticize the CPP from exile on his Facebook page—vowed to return to Cambodia to face off against Hun Sen in general elections next year.

“In 2018, our compatriots will go to vote for change at the national level through electing new lawmakers. Then we will have a new government and a new prime minister to lead a new politics in order to serve the genuine interests of the nation and the people,” he said.

No effect seen

Further restrictions added to Cambodian law will likely have no effect at all on the opposition leader’s political activities, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang told RFA.

“Sam Rainsy’s political career cannot be blocked by any law that Hun Sen wishes to propose,” Eng Chhai Eang said. “Sam Rainsy has won his popularity with the [Cambodian] people, and even if such a law is eventually adopted, it will not be able to ban him from engaging in politics.”

Such a law would also violate rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution, Cambodian attorney Hong Kim Suon said.

“It is improper even to propose such a law, as it would violate the right to freedom of expression,” Hong Kim Suon said.

“A convict’s freedom of movement may be restricted, but never his freedom of expression,” he said.

Addressing supporters in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen meanwhile called on Cambodia’s Minister of Interior to look into the legal status of election-monitoring group The Situation Room, an already disbanded grouping of Cambodian NGOs that had questioned the fairness of commune council polls held on June 4.

“They keep challenging election outcomes time and time again,” Hun Sen said. “We won’t tolerate them anymore.”

“What is the purpose of this ‘Room,’ which challenges the National Election Commission’s results?  Is the Situation Room used as a command center for a ‘color revolution’ under the pretext of monitoring the elections?” he asked.

“The Ministry of Interior must take immediate action against this group,” Hun Sen said.

Reached for comment, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said only that a ‘group of experts’ will look into the matter, adding, “Wait until a study has been carried out.”

A narrow road

Speaking to CNRP supporters in Kampong Chhnang province on Wednesday, party president Kem Sokha said that in spite of recent electoral gains, Cambodia’s political opposition now faces a “narrow road” leading to next year’s national polls.

“The road is narrow because the ruling party is reluctant to accept their losses, so we are going to face many more obstacles,” he said. “We have been persecuted in many ways, and they are not going to stop.”

“But thanks to the clarity of our principles and strategies, the CNRP will overcome these ordeals.”

Cheam Sarun, newly elected CNRP commune chief for the province’s Baribo District, added that his party’s members are aware of the obstacles they will now face.

“However, we are determined to move forward, addressing each challenge as it comes,” he said.

Reported by Zakariya Thin, Vuthy Tha, and Sopheak Chin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muon. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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China Falls, Myanmar Climbs in Anti-Trafficking Rankings: Report

The U.S. State Department downgraded China to a Tier 3 ranking in its annual report on human trafficking Tuesday, citing the government’s continued role in forced labor, particularly in hosting workers sent by North Korea to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.

The annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report ranks 188 countries—rating them as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, or Tier 3—based on whether they meet the minimum standards set by U.S. law to eliminate human trafficking, as mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

The minimum standards under the U.S. law include a government’s prohibition of and punishment of severe forms of human trafficking, and serious and sustained efforts to eliminate such trafficking.

In remarks given at the launch of the TIP report Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that China is one of the primary destinations for the estimated 50,000 to 80,000 North Korean citizens working overseas as forced laborers to generate illicit sources of revenue for Pyongyang amid sanctions for the development of its nuclear weapons program.

“Responsible nations simply cannot allow this to go on, and we continue to call on any nation that is hosting workers from North Korea in a forced labor arrangement to send those people home,” Tillerson said.

“Responsible nations also must take further action. China was downgraded to Tier 3 status in this year’s report in part because it has not taken serious steps to end its own complicity in trafficking—including forced laborers from North Korea that are located in China.”

The Tier 3 designation for China, down from Tier 2 Watch List last year, ranks the country among the world’s worst human trafficking offenders—along with the likes of Sudan, Syria, Iran, and North Korea. The report issued its rankings based on information compiled from April 2016 to March 2017.

In addition to hosting North Korean forced laborers, the TIP report said that China was also responsible for the continued forced repatriation of trafficking victims from North Korea, who face punishments including execution back home, without screening them for indicators of trafficking.

The TIP report cited accounts indicating Beijing’s complicity in forced labor throughout China, including the coercion of mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs by local officials in the Xinjiang region, as well as in drug rehabilitation facilities where individuals are frequently detained without judicial process.

China’s government convicted fewer sex and labor traffickers in 2017 compared to a year earlier, and while Beijing mandated that authorities screen for indicators of trafficking among individuals arrested for prostitution, the State Department said it was unclear if any were screened.

China received a Tier 3 designation in the 2013 TIP report, but has otherwise been ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List since 2010.

The State Department recommended that China end forced labor in government facilities and by government officials outside of the penal process, and do a better job investigating, prosecuting, and imposing sentences on perpetrators of forced labor and sex trafficking.

Myanmar

In contrast, Myanmar—called Burma in the report—moved up to the Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 3 a year ago, based on continued progress in eliminating the use of child soldiers, increased personnel dedicated to anti-trafficking law enforcement units, and the first trafficking prosecutions of government officials since the country enacted a 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law.

Tier 2 Watch List countries do not fully comply with the minimum standards set by U.S. law but are seen as making significant efforts to bring themselves in line.

The TIP report also cited strengthened efforts to identify victims in border areas, appointing trafficking case workers to all social welfare offices, and continued cooperation with international partners to demobilize child soldiers as reasons for country’s improvement in rank.

Myanmar was upgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List in 2012 after the country’s military junta handed power to a nominally civilian government, but had fallen to Tier 3 in 2016—an automatic drop in rank after lingering on the Watch List for three years.

While the State Department applauded Myanmar’s progress, it recommended that the government stop requiring troops to source their own labor from local communities in an effort to reduce the prevalence of forced labor, and strengthen prosecution of military officials who engage in child soldier recruitment.

Other nations

The four other countries covered by RFA—Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea—were placed in the same categories in which they appeared in last year’s report, with North Korea ranked lowest at Tier 3, Cambodia and Vietnam ranked at Tier 2, and Laos at Tier 2 Watch List.

Cambodia remained at Tier 2 for the second year in a row after moving up from the Tier 2 Watch List in 2016 based on the government’s conviction of a significantly higher number of traffickers, allocating more funds to anti-trafficking committees, and establishing new plans to curb child debt bondage and other forms of labor exploitation.

However, the State Department said the government must prosecute officials complicit in corruption that contributes to trafficking, stop courts from settling sex trafficking cases with monetary settlements, and do a better job collecting and sharing anti-trafficking data.

Laos was granted a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3, allowing the country to remain on the Tier 2 Watch List for a fourth year, because the government devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that the TIP report said would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

Recommendations for the country included collaboration with civil society to implement the government’s 2016-2020 national action plan, strengthening efforts to implement its 2016 anti-trafficking law by prosecuting traffickers, and training police and border officials on victim identification.

Vietnam has been ranked at Tier 2 since moving up from the Watch List in 2012, and remained at the designation in 2017 for identifying more victims, expanding anti-trafficking training and awareness campaigns for law enforcement, and issuing guidelines to relevant authorities on its national anti-trafficking action plan.

But anti-trafficking efforts were impeded by a lack of interagency coordination, unfamiliarity among local officials with anti-trafficking laws and victim identification procedures, and underdeveloped data collection, the State Department said.

As a Tier 3 country, North Korea was cited for its forced labor in prison camps and through the government’s bilateral agreements to send its citizens to work in other nations where they are prohibited from switching jobs and must surrender most of their earnings to the state.

North Korea has imprisoned about 80,000-120,000 of its people in camps in remote areas of the country without judicial prosecutions, convictions or sentencings, the report said.

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Cambodia Authorities Monitor Activist Monks Protesting Weapon Arrest

Plainclothes officers in Cambodia’s Battambang province are monitoring the temple home of a group of activist monks after they called for the release of one of their number, who was arrested last week after posting a photo of himself on social media posing with a gun, a leading monk said Tuesday.

Lonh Sokchea, of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, told RFA’s Khmer Service that “several plainclothes police” have been “spying” on his group’s activities since he and 50 other members protested in front of the Battambang Provincial Court on June 22 demanding the release of fellow monk Horn Sophanny.

“We feel that our efforts to advocate peacefully for the release of our fellow monk Venerable Horn Sopanny are hamstrung and frustrated,” he said, adding that he and other monks feel “intimidated and worried” by the police presence.

“On top of that, we feel the imminent pressure of more restrictions being inflicted upon us to the point that we believe the detained monk will be held for a much longer period.”

Deputy provincial police chief of Battambang Cheth Vanny on Tuesday dismissed Lonh Sokchea’s claim that police officers had been deployed to monitor monks at the temple.

“It’s not true—I haven’t been informed of this,” he told RFA.

“If you want to know more about this, you should call the Provincial Department of Religion.”

In April, Horn Sophanny, 24, posted a photo of himself posing with a gun in his monk’s robes on Facebook, accompanied by criticism of the government and a statement claiming that the gun was real and would be used if Prime Minister Hun Sen’s warnings of civil war—had his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost recent commune elections—come true.

Horn Sophanny was arrested on June 21 for illegal possession of a weapon and incitement to commit a crime, but monks from the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice maintain the gun was a toy and say he was targeted because of his political activism and monitoring of the June 4 ballot.

The young monk, who has also been defrocked, is currently in prison awaiting trial.

But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, has slammed Battambang authorities for “joining hands” with provincial prosecutors to make an example of Horn Sophanny, who he contends was too young to know any better and should be reprimanded by his group’s head monks within the temple.

Activist monks

Yin Mengly, Banteay Meanchey province coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, called the deployment of police to monitor monks at a temple “a threat which infringes on the rights of the monks to carry out their daily activities.”

He told RFA that the move indicates that the authorities might be “worried about the monks, who could [continue] to protest for the release of their fellow monk.”

“As long as monks don’t carry out illegal activities, they shall be allowed to [protest],” he said.

“They are not against the law or the government. They are not advocating for a color revolution. We have noted that those monks have benefited local communities through social work. Such activities should be encouraged not discouraged.”

Over the weekend, two spokesmen from the Ministry of Justice warned But Buntenh against protesting on Horn Sophanny’s behalf, saying his continued pressure for the monk’s release is “not good for him or the suspect,” according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.

Reported by Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia Opposition Slams Commune Elections as Neither Free Nor Fair

Cambodia’s opposition party on Monday praised improvements in the country’s electoral process a day after the release of official results from a commune ballot held earlier this month, but said a number of factors unfairly tipped the vote in favor of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party.

Slightly more than 7 million Cambodians, or 89.52 percent of registered voters, turned out for commune council polls on June 4, a record turnout in a test of public opinion ahead of 2018 general elections.

According to official results released Sunday by the National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 22 provinces, while the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won two major cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as Kompong Cham and Kompong Thom provinces.

The CPP secured 1,156 of 1,646 commune/sangkat chief posts, the CNRP won 489 and one commune leader post went to the Khmer National United Party, the NEC said. The CPP received nearly 51 percent of all votes and the CNRP received nearly 44 percent, while the rest went to 10 other parties.

The NEC called the election “a great success for Cambodian citizens” that had helped the nation progress “in accordance with the principle of pluralist liberal democracy,” and “proceeded smoothly and successfully with commendations and acceptability from all stakeholders.”

Following the release of the official results on Sunday, the CPP issued a statement declaring its acceptance of the NEC’s findings, which it said “stemmed from a genuinely free and fair election … in accordance with the constitution and statutes of the Kingdom of Cambodia under a neutral, free and safe political environment.”

Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also welcomed the results Sunday, saying in a statement that “the fundamental rules of democracy and transparency have been widely respected at every stage of this long process … [while] a few minor problems that have been addressed and corrected cannot be regarded as major obstacles to congratulate Cambodia for the successful organization of this free and fair election.”

Election flaws

On Monday, the CNRP released a statement noting improvements in voter lists, voter registration, and candidate lists, but slamming the commune ballot as having “failed to satisfy the principles of free and fair elections.”

Ahead of the election, the opposition said, former CNRP president Sam Rainsy was pressured and banned from returning to Cambodia in connection with what has been called a politically motivated conviction; courts were used to persecute CNRP lawmakers, supporters and a variety of other stakeholders; and government officials—including Hun Sen—had threatened civil war should the CPP lose the vote.

During the two-week election campaign period which began May 20, the opposition was discriminated against for campaign event locations, CPP-friendly media were given preferential treatment, civil servants were obligated to campaign for the ruling party, and the CPP engaged in “vote buying,” it said.

The CNRP said that on election day, more than one million Cambodians working overseas were denied the right to vote because the government did not provide them the means to do so, while factory employees were not given time off from their jobs to submit their ballots.

On the day of the vote count, military personnel were present and counting took place behind closed doors at some polling stations, the opposition said, while the NEC rejected a CNRP request for a vote recount, despite electoral laws that allow for recounts when election results differ by at least 0.5 percent.

‘Significant limitations’

The CNRP’s assessment of the commune polls followed one by the Situation Room group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Licadho, and Adhoc—on Saturday, which applauded improved election management, but noted significant restrictions on political freedom and limits to fairness.

“The Situation Room has found that the election process has been significantly improved and made more transparent than before, in terms of voter registration and voter list management, candidate registration, polling and counting process, and the announcement of electoral results,” the group said in a statement.

But it added that the conduct of the election campaign and electoral dispute resolution “need to be improved” and noted that “significant irregularities or issues occurred prior to the election which established a context that negatively impacted the fairness of the vote.”

Among those factors, the statement said, were an environment of political suppression, a lack of transparency and inequities in campaign finance, misuse of state resources, an “unequal playing field,” the lack of an independent judiciary, and the intimidation of civil society by security officials.

“These problems combined to result in significant limitations on the quality of the poll, such that elections in Cambodia cannot yet be considered fully free and fair,” the Situation Room said, calling for measures to resolve the issues ahead of next year’s general elections.

‘Never satisfied’

Speaking during a graduation ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh on Monday, Hun Sen slammed the election’s detractors and suggested they would only be happy if the CPP lost.

“For the Cambodian People’s Party, we have already declared that we accept the results, and we consider the election free and fair,” he said.

“On the contrary, a political party and the so-called Situation Room of civil society organizations consider it otherwise. But I think they would only call [an election] free if they could have free access to the Prime Minister’s house to kill him right on the spot.”

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, said the country’s opposition is “never satisfied” with election results.

“Only if they could take control of the Peace Palace would they consider the election free and fair,” he said, referring to the Office of the Prime Minister of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

“They have failed to achieve their plan to take hold of the Senate. That’s why they consider the election neither fair nor free.”

Reported by Leng Maly for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cham Muslim Families in Cambodia Threatened Over Ties to Political Opposition

Eight families belonging to a Cham Muslim community in central Cambodia’s Kampong Chhnang province have been ordered by community leaders to end their support of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, with warnings given that they will be expelled from their local mosque if they continue.

One family member, Naong Matt, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday that local leaders Matt Mao and Tuon Sen had told him twice to stop supporting the opposition party and had urged him to sign a public declaration or “take an oath” at his local mosque saying he had done so.

They were joined in their demands by several leaders of the mosque in Svay Chuk commune’s Damnak Pring village, Naong Matt said.

“They said that if we don’t defect to the [ruling] Cambodian People’s Party, they will not allow us to hold religious ceremonies in the village, and they will throw us out of the mosque,” he said.

“I told them that I support the CNRP and many of its policies and see no problem with this, but they said that the case is out of their hands and that their orders come from higher authorities in [the government’s] Ministry of Cult and Religious Affairs.”

Donors’ gifts of rice, noodles, canned fish, and soft drinks often distributed to Cham community members are now being denied to the dissenting families, some of whose members have stood for local election as candidates from the CNRP, Naong Matt added.

‘Just join outwardly’

Also speaking to RFA, village leader Matt Mao denied Naong Matt’s charge of mosque leaders’ interference in the Cham families’ political ties, saying that their only concern is for “solidarity” in the larger community.

“I told [the families], just join the CPP outwardly. In your mind, you can still support any party you choose.”

“These families won’t stop, though, no matter what difficulties they face,” said Sin Sovann, CNRP vice president for the province’s Khmer-Islam movement. “They will still support the CNRP, because they love the party’s platform.”

Reached for comment, provincial department head for Cambodia’s Ministry of Cult and Religious Affairs Sar Leang denied knowledge of the dispute in Damnak Pring, but said he will order authorities to look into the case and have it promptly settled.

Reported by Sopheak Chin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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North Korean Restaurants in China Close Amid Regional Tensions

North Korean restaurants in eastern China’s Shandong province are folding amid a downturn in business from South Korean and Chinese customers, who sources say are avoiding the eating establishments due to ongoing political tensions in the region.

The sources told RFA’s Korean Service that the shuttering of North Korean eateries in Shandong’s city of Qingdao is representative of a wider trend throughout China, as the restaurants—already known for high prices, poor food, and middling entertainment—struggle to bring in diners increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang’s belligerent foreign policy.

One source from Qingdao, who spoke with RFA on condition of anonymity, said all North Korean restaurants in the city’s Chengyang district had recently closed, despite the area being home to a thriving Korea Town with a large ethnic Korean population.

“Many North Korean restaurants—not only in Qingdao, but also in other areas [in China]—are suffering from low sales because they don’t have any customers,” the source said of the establishments, which are a key source of foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime amid international sanctions over Pyongyang’s development of its nuclear weapons program.

And while tensions have arisen between South Korea and China over the former’s deployment of the U.S. military’s THAAD anti-ballistic missile system in March, “[South] Korean restaurants in Qingdao continue to flourish,” he said.

“There are dozens of [South] Korean restaurants in the Korea Town in Qingdao,” the source said.

“There were three North Korean restaurants, but they have closed down because they had no customers.”

According to the source, there are several theories circulating about why the restaurants have shut down in Qingdao, but the prevailing assessment is that “North Korea continuously carries out nuclear experiments, despite international sanctions, and it is causing people to view them with contempt.”

North Korea detonated its fifth nuclear device in September last year and most recently tested what is believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile engine on Thursday, according to U.S. officials.

The source acknowledged that “overpriced menus” could be partially responsible for the downturn in business.

“Compared to Chinese and [South] Korean restaurants in that area, the quality and taste of their food is quite disappointing,” he said.

And even though the restaurants offer entertainment, including dancing and singing by young North Korean women, the source said it is not enough to keep customers coming back.

“They only sing North Korean songs, so a couple of visits can be plenty,” he said.

Drop in customers

A Korean-Chinese source from Jilin province, near the border with North Korea told RFA that he was surprised to find all of Qingdao’s North Korean restaurants shuttered during a recent visit to the city.

“The restaurants were running last year but they are all closed down now,” said the source, who also asked to remain unnamed.

“The North Korean restaurant business in Qingdao was doing okay around the same time last year,” he said.

“I heard that the restaurants closed down not so long ago because customers, including South Korean travelers, stopped coming.”

The sources told RFA that unless North Korea reevaluates its foreign policy, the country’s remaining restaurants in China are also sure to face financial difficulties.

Restaurants in Chinese cities like Shenyang and Dandong near the North Korean border also suffered downturns last year as North Koreans working in cross-border trade began to avoid them, fearing that agents of the regime would watch them there and monitor their movements, sources have said.

Several North Korean restaurants have formed joint ventures with Chinese businessmen or with the landlord of the restaurant’s building in a bid to avoid being shut down for failing to pay rent amid slumping sales.

Declining business

Recent reports suggest that North Korean restaurants in Southeast Asian countries—such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand—are also experiencing a decline in business.

In February, a South Korean resident of Cambodia told RFA that a North Korean restaurant operating near the country’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex had closed while another was struggling to stay in business following last year’s strengthening of U.N. sanctions curbing funds for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

As many as eight North Korean restaurants were operating in Cambodia in late 2015, but only four are believed to be still in business, the source said at the time.

Despite being a main source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped North Korean government, the number of North Korean restaurants is on the decline globally. The 130 known North Korean restaurants that operate abroad generate some U.S. $10 million annually, according to South Korean estimates.

A growing body of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations Security Council reportedly have made it harder for the eateries to send funds back to Kim Jong Un’s government.

U.N. human rights officials have also begun scrutinizing labor abuses committed by North Korea as it dispatches its citizens around the world to toil to earn hard currency for the regime.  

In April last year, a North Korean restaurant in the eastern Chinese port city of Ningbo made international headlines when 13 staff members escaped to South Korea to seek asylum—a mass defection that Pyongyang condemned as a “hideous” abduction by Seoul’s agents.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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