Khmer News in En

NDI Accused of Assisting Opposition to Undermine Cambodia’s Ruling Party

A U.S. NGO promoting political participation has come under fire in Cambodia following allegations that it advised the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on how to beat the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of recent commune elections and a general ballot set for next year.

On Wednesday, government-aligned media group Fresh News reported that Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) held a training course from March 14-15 for the CNRP at the Sunway Hotel in the capital Phnom Penh on “unseating the ruling party in the 2017-2018 elections.”

Fresh News published a program agenda and a presentation slide allegedly used at the session, entitled “Communications Consultations,” that said the opposition would only lose commune elections held on June 4 and the 2018 general election if the “CPP cheats” or the CNRP “lacks the strategy, discipline, [and] creativity to win.”

The two documents, and training materials that included the names of CNRP President Kem Sokha and other senior opposition officials, were leaked in a post on the Facebook page of an anonymous user, the report said.

Fresh News said the training was a “deliberately evil plan” by the NDI to “commission a strategy and tactics to help the CNRP defeat the CPP in the next elections.”

The CPP won June’s commune elections, but the CNRP received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the ruling party’s 51 percent, in an outcome that many see as a bellwether for next year’s ballot.

On Thursday, Fresh News cited Huy Vannak, an Interior Ministry undersecretary of state and the president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, as saying that “after a careful review of the NDI we have found that this organization has not registered with the Ministry of Interior since the outset.”

Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) was passed in 2015 with unanimous approval by CPP lawmakers, amid a boycott of parliament by the CNRP. The law requires the 5,000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and shut downs.

NDI responds

Following the reports by Fresh News, John Cavanaugh, NDI’s resident program director in Cambodia, issued a statement saying that his organization is non-partisan and committed to helping improve democracy in the country.

“For more than 25 years, NDI has partnered with Cambodian political parties, candidates, civil society, and ordinary citizens to promote transparent governance and inclusive political participation that serves the best interests of the Cambodian people,” Cavanaugh said.

“During the months of January, February, March, and April 2017, NDI provided training for CPP, CNRP, and three smaller parties on a wide variety of political party strengthening topics. NDI offered each party the opportunity to indicate what issues they wanted to receive training on,” he added.

“NDI is strictly non-partisan and partners with all major political parties. NDI’s work is focused on strengthening democratic processes, benefiting candidates and voters alike.”

Cavanaugh noted that NDI submitted its registration application to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on Sept. 21, and said the organization was expecting a favorable review by the government.

This week is not the first time NDI has been accused by the CPP or CPP-aligned groups of trying to undermine Cambodia’s government.

In May, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said four NGOs that run or fund programs in Cambodia, including NDI, and the U.S. government were working to instigate “color revolutions” in the country, during a presentation he gave at parliament.

The Phnom Penh Post quoted Chheang Vun accusing “powerful countries” like the U.S. and their intelligence arms of pushing regime change through civil society actors in “small countries” that don’t follow their interests.

In addition to NDI, the lawmaker also named NGOs National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Freedom House, and also referred to the Open Society Institute—an apparent reference to the Open Societies Foundation (OSF), founded by billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.

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

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Interview: ‘Winning is Based on The Judgment of the Public’

Choung Choungy has practiced law for more than a decade in Cambodia, where civil society groups routinely accuse the court system of lacking independence from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party government. He regularly defends opposition politicians, activists, and campaigners whose views oppose the government in cases widely seen as politically motivated. The lawyer’s most recent client is social commentator Kim Sok, who last week was sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of defamation and incitement to cause social disorder after Prime Minister Hun Sen accused him of implying that the CPP had orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley.

While Choung Choungy rarely wins cases the cases he takes on behalf of those targeted by the government, the lawyer says he feels an obligation to seek justice for his clients and provide them with equal rights before the law. He recently spoke to Neang Ieng of RFA’s Khmer Service about his work, and about the pressure he feels since being sentenced to prison in absentia after representing victims of a land dispute in Kandal province in 2011:

My clients … are activists who advocate and seek justice for society. As a result, powerful individuals try to make trouble for them. I am of the opinion that all of these activists are entitled to a good defense, but most lawyers dare not defend such cases.

For me, the meaning of my life is the extent to which I can contribute to seeking justice in society. That is my wish. As for my own financial needs, it is merely a secondary issue.

The Kandal Provincial Court sentenced me in absentia to two years in jail and 3 million riels (U.S. $730) in fines. I have filed an appeal … but so far, the court has yet to rehear it, so I am under the court’s pressure. This makes it feel difficult for me to carry out my work to the fullest of my ability. If I pursue a case actively or I am outspoken, such pressure will haunt me.

I rarely win most politically motivated cases, but I feel they are spiritual wins … My view of winning is based on the judgment of the public. When the public believes I defended a case well, it means I have won the hearts of the public. Therefore, when I do a good deed or strive to carry out my work, the public will see that I have performed well. That means I’m winning the case.

If your lifetime goal is simply enriching yourself, you shouldn’t be a lawyer and you should choose a different career. Those who want to be lawyers must set their goals clearly to contribute to the legal sector … As a lawyer, the most important thing is willing to be clean. This means that in our profession, we must never be corrupted or do anything deemed dishonest against our clients. This work is entirely based on honesty.

Translated by Sovannarith Keo.

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Cambodian Police Raid Headquarters of Opposition Khmer Power Party

More than 50 Cambodian police officers conducted a search of the Khmer Power Party’s headquarters in the capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday, after its president was arrested on charges of insulting the military.

The police checked computers and seized documents at the office in Tuol Kouk District two days after the political party’s president Sourn Serey Ratha was arrested on Aug. 13 for posting Facebook messages offensive to the Cambodian Armed Forces.

Sourn Serey Ratha was charged with three counts of incitement, including insulting the military, for a perceived disrespectful online post he made on Aug. 12 in which he accused generals of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces of enjoying air conditioning and female companionship while rank-and-file soldiers did the fighting and dying.

Cambodian-American Sourn Serey Ratha founded the pro-American party in March 2010, though it did not officially register as a political party until five years later. The Khmer Power Party (KPP) advocates the abolishment of Cambodia’s monarchy and the establishment of a new regime as the second Khmer Republic.

Authorities have suspected Sourn Serey Ratha of having connections to Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLP) leader Sam Serey, who mentioned Sourn Serey Ratha’s name in a Facebook post on Aug. 13.

The Cambodian government considers the KNLF a hostile political group that seeks to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government.

“I condemn Vietnam and the puppet regime of Hun Sen for arresting the president of the Khmer Power Party for just voicing his opinion on Facebook,” Sam Serey wrote in his post.

“Sourn Serey Ratha’s arrest is politically motivated because the Khmer Power Party has connections with and supports the Khmer National Liberation Front,” he wrote.

“It is unequivocal that the Cambodia-Laos dispute is a political game to divert people’s attention from the human rights abuses committed by the government,” he wrote in a reference to Lao soldiers’ recent occupation of an area south of the Sekong River claimed by both Laos and Cambodia.

On May 5, the spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense blasted RFA for an article it published the day before about the presence of Lao soldiers in Cambodian territory, calling it “fake news.”

Last week, however, Hun Sen acknowledged that Lao soldiers had been on Cambodian soil since April.

The troops left the disputed zone following a meeting on Aug. 12 during which Hun Sen and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisolith pledged to work to reduce tensions.

Politically motivated

Suong Sophorn, acting president of the KPP and a former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) candidate who defected to the KPP on Aug. 9, said he considers the raid of the party’s headquarters to be politically motivated.

He also said it was not appropriate for authorities cite the Facebook post by Sam Serey as the basis for the search.

“As someone with a background in law, I don’t think a letter by so-called KNLF president Sam Serey should be used to implicate Sourn Serey Ratha,” he said. “As the acting president of the KPP, I strongly reject such a letter.”

Sourn Serey Ratha is being detained in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison after being charged on Monday.

His trial is scheduled for Aug. 24.

Reported by Savi Khorn for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written by Roseanne Gerin.

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UN Rights Envoy Attends Vigil Marking One-Year Imprisonment of Cambodia Activist

A United Nations’ rights envoy met with activists involved in a long-running dispute at a lake community in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh Tuesday as they marked the one-year anniversary of the jailing of one of their leaders.

Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, met with the residents of the Boeung Kak Lake community as they gathered for a vigil honoring Tep Vanny, who was arrested on Aug. 15, 2016 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison in February.

Bov Sophea, one of the Boeung Kak activists, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the group was pleased Smith had made time to meet with them on the eighth day of her 11-day visit to investigate the rights situation in Cambodia, with a special emphasis on the rights of children—part of her focus on discrimination and marginalized groups.

“We told her about our concerns regarding Cambodia’s judicial system, which is used to persecute us,” she said.

“Several representatives of our committee, including a 77-year-old woman, have been charged. They can jail us anytime they want … We are double victims of land grabbing and eviction, and mistreatment by the authorities. We are very saddened by our very bad treatment by the courts.”

Bov Sophea expressed hope that Smith would communicate the concerns of the Boeung Kak Lake activists to the international community.

The rights envoy also met with Tep Vanny in prison Tuesday, before visiting the jailed activist’s 13-year-old daughter, Ou Kong Panha.

Smith’s visit to Boeung Kak Lake came a day after the activists sent the second of two petitions in a week to the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, asking for its help in obtaining the release of Tep Vanny, and on the same day the group sent a similar petition to eight foreign embassies in Cambodia.

The activists said they plan to deliver another petition on Tep Vanny’s behalf to several government institutions in coming days.

Activist’s case

Tep Vanny came to prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from a neighborhood surrounding the lake. The lake was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

She has also been active in urging an independent investigation into the July 10, 2016 shooting death of Kem Ley, a popular social commentator and frequent government critic.

On Feb. 23, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Tep Vanny to two years and six months in prison on charges of “aggravated intentional violence” in connection with a 2013 protest she held in front of Hun Sen’s home that ended in violence.

While the protest occurred in 2013, the court prosecutor reactivated the case and charged Tep Vanny in August last year after she was arrested for participating in another demonstration.

On Aug. 8, Cambodia’s Appeals Court upheld the Municipal Court’s ruling, which was issued following a trial in which the prosecution failed to produce any witnesses—preventing cross-examination by the defense—and which is widely seen as politically motivated.

Defense witnesses maintain that security forces launched an attack against Tep Vanny’s group in 2013, leaving some protesters wounded, knocked unconscious, or with lost teeth, while others suffered broken arms. Tep Vanny was also injured in the confrontation.

On Monday, a group of 64 domestic and international civil society organizations issued a statement calling Tep Vanny’s imprisonment “grossly unjust” and demanding that the government end its “harassment of Tep Vanny and other Boeung Kak Lake activists through arrests, prosecution and imprisonment.”

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

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Troops Pull Back From Disputed Areas After Lao, Cambodian Prime Ministers Meet

Lao soldiers occupying an area south of the Sekong River claimed by both Laos and Cambodia have pulled back from the disputed zone following a meeting Saturday in which the prime ministers of both countries promised to work to reduce tensions, Cambodian media and other sources said.

The Aug. 12 meeting between Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen and Lao prime minister Thongloun Sisolith came after Hun Sen on Friday threatened military action against the neighboring country if its troops were not withdrawn by Aug. 17.

The contested area between Cambodia’s Stung Treng province and Attapeu province in Laos is part of a small stretch of border still not clearly marked, and tensions flared earlier this year after Lao troops crossed the river to block Cambodian construction of a road through the area.

Laos agreed to withdraw the dozens of troops remaining after Hun Sen pledged to stop construction of the road, Lao prime minister Thongloun Sisolith said in a press conference following their meeting in the Lao capital Vientiane on Saturday.

“Samdech [honorific] Hun Sen and I have agreed that the Lao side will pull back all troops remaining in the area following his promise to stop building the road through the [conflict zone], and I have ordered the relevant officials to withdraw by no later than tomorrow morning, ” Thongloun said.

“Secondly, Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered the withdrawal of all [Cambodian] troops being deployed to that area so that the situation can be returned to normal, and so that the people of both our countries can be assured that unwanted incidents will not occur,” he said.

Both Laos and Cambodia will now move forward to resolve outstanding border issues “as soon as possible,” Thongloun said.

Troops from both sides have now pulled back from the Huay Thanau area of Phouvong district in Attapeu province in Laos, and from Ratanakiri province in Cambodia, a senior military and public security official in Laos’s Champassak province told RFA’s Lao Service on Monday.

“[We] coordinated yesterday evening,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

‘Not a negotiation’

Speaking on Monday to students at a commencement ceremony in Cambodia, Hun Sen said that he had gone to Vientiane “not to bow to Laos while being subject to their aggression” but only to ask that their forces be withdrawn, calling the meeting normal diplomatic practice and “not a negotiation.”

Political commentators calling Hun Sen’s threat of war against Laos a political move aimed at gaining votes “will not be tolerated,” the prime minister said, adding that one critic—Khmer Power Party president (KPP) Sourn Serey Ratha—has already been arrested for insulting Cambodia’s army in an Aug. 12 Facebook post.

A Cambodian war with Laos would be a war fought “to build up the face and status of those thieves who disguise themselves as heroes to mislead us,” the opposition party politician wrote.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, KPP spokesperson Tep Virak said that Sourn Serey Ratha had not intended to attack the country’s army in his post.

“He just wanted to say that the real victims [in a war] are the rank-and-file soldiers,” he said.

“He was referring only to the commanders, who are the children of society’s higher ranks and are powerful individuals who assume power and enjoy benefits because of personal connections and patronage.”

Sorn Chey-—executive director of the Cambodia-based Affiliated Network for Social Accountability-East Asia and the Pacific—meanwhile dismissed Hun Sen’s warnings, saying that the voicing of political opinions in a democratic country should not affect military morale.

“The government should pay more attention to providing resources and better pay. These are the things that motivate the military,” he said.

“Points raised by political commentators will not affect the army’s reputation or morale,” he said.

Reported by Thai Tha and Savi Khorn for RFA’s Khmer Service and by Ounkeo Souksavanh and Bounchanh Mouangkham for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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Hun Sen Threatens Laos Over Troops in Cambodia

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen called on Laos on Friday to withdraw troops he said have been present in Cambodia since April, threatening military action against the neighboring country if its soldiers are not pulled out by Aug. 17, Cambodian media and other sources said.

Speaking at a ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said that he has ordered a temporary halt to road construction in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province challenged by Laos to give its  soldiers a chance to leave.

Residents of Stung Treng should not be alarmed, though, if they see Cambodian troops mass in the area to take back the disputed land, Hun Sen said.

“I can’t let anyone take an inch of Cambodian land, and Cambodia won’t take anyone else’s land either,” the prime minister said.

“I urge Laos to withdraw its troops from Cambodia unconditionally,” he said.

The Lao government should complain to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if it truly believes the land to which it has sent troops belongs to Laos, Hun Sen said, adding, “We should go to court together in order to avoid bloodshed.”

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Cambodian political analyst Meas Nee said that war between Cambodia and Laos would harm both countries, and that Hun Sen’s warning may now lead to talks.

“Most world leaders would issue warnings like this,” he said. “And negotiations can sometimes result from this.”

Comments on Cambodian social media meanwhile called Hun Sen’s warning of military action a ploy to gain popularity ahead of national elections next year, positioning him as a “leader who dares to protect his country from invasion.”

A Lao official in the country’s Champasak province near Cambodia said he had received no notice of a Cambodian threat of war against his country.

“We have not been informed, we have not received any notice, and the Cambodian consulate here has not said anything,” the official told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.

“Everything seems normal [here].”

Reported by Sonorng Kher for RFA’s Khmer Service and by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sarada Taing and Bounchanh Mouangkham. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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