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Cambodian Activist Detained For ‘Inciting a Protest,’ Flying a Drone

Cambodian authorities detained and questioned a youth activist from the domestic environmental nongovernmental organization Mother Nature Cambodia on Monday for allegedly “inciting a community to protest” and for illegally flying a drone, a domestic human rights group and provincial official said.

Hun Vannak had gone to Koh Kor village, Rorka Khpuos commune, in southeastern Cambodia’s Kandal province by invitation to monitor a meeting with Sa’ang district authorities, commune and village officials, and representatives of a sand-dredging company, according to a statement issued by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

“CCHR has received information that Mr. Vannak is being questioned in relation to allegedly illegally inciting the community to protest, and for allegedly illegally flying a drone,” the statement said. “The exact nature of the alleged offenses is yet to be confirmed by the authorities.”

Sa’ang District authorities picked him up in the village at 12:30 p.m. local time and questioned him for several hours before releasing him at 8 p.m., CCHR and villagers said.

About 20 police officers and uniformed representatives of the Leng Chin Group Company Ltd. intercepted him as he walked to buy lunch after meeting with roughly 200 villagers affected by sand dredging in the Tonle Bassac River, they said.

The villagers had gathered to protest against the Leng Chin Group, the company conducting the sand-dredging operations, to demand that it stop its activities and compensate them for lost and damaged property.

The officers forced Hun Vannak into a police vehicle and took him to the Ta Kmao police station for questioning, CCHR and villagers said.

Those who witnessed his apprehension told RFA’s Khmer Service that authorities had said there would be no arrests during the meeting.

Several villagers waited outside the police station for news about the activist’s release.

“Hun Vannak was brought in to the police station for questioning regarding the status of his organization and the purpose of his presence at the location where he was detained,” Khem Chaniri, deputy provincial governor of Kandal province, told RFA.

“Last week he even flew a drone illegally, so he has been detained for questioning only,” he said.

Hun Vannak flew the drone over areas affected by sand dredging on Aug. 5.

After he was released, Hun Vannak told RFA that authorities questioned him about his involvement in helping the 200 villagers organize their protest.

The police threatened him during the interrogation because they said his activities were illegal, he said.

Hun Vannak argued with them that his activities to help educate people about their rights and peaceful protest were not illegal, he said

He also told police that he educated the villagers about the roles and responsibilities of the authorities and the Leng Chin Group.

Before police released him, he said he had to agree to not fly drones in Koh Kor village, to stay out of the village, to not interfere in the administrative matters of local authorities, and to refrain from engaging in any protests that incite disorder and unrest.

Determined to fight

Villagers said members of Mother Nature, including Huy Vannak, came to Koh Kor to tell them about their rights and give them instructions for conducting peaceful protests to voice their concerns about that sand-dredging activities that destroyed their homes during a riverbank collapse.

Villagers told RFA that they are determined to continue fighting against the sand dredging.

They also said officials from the Ministry of Mines and Energy had met with Leng Chin Group representatives to ask the company to stop dredging sand too closely to the riverbank and the villagers’ homes.

The company agreed to dredge sand at least 50 meters (164 feet) from the riverbank per the villagers’ request with approval from the ministry.

Initially, the Leng Chin Group complied with the terms, but soon it moved its dredging vessels as close as 25 meters (82 feet) from the riverbank, prompting the villagers to protest, they said.

Sand dredging operations have been conducted in Koh Kor village for more than seven years.

Villagers have been meeting almost daily to discuss the dredging and to plan advocacy activities, although the meetings are routinely been disrupted by district-level authorities and police, CCHR said.

This is not the first time that authorities have detained or harassed members of Mother Nature.

On June 11, police repeated asked activist Thun Ratha to produce his identification card while he was staying with the villagers affected by the sand dredging in the same village.

Fearing for their safety, the activist and 20 villagers turned to the United Nations human rights office in Cambodia for help.

In another related sand dredging event in southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, three other Mother Nature activists were arrested and jailed.

Try Sovikea, 28, San Mala, 26, and Sim Somnang, 31, were detained for 10 months before receiving 18-month sentences in July 2016 for threatening to destroy a barge belonging to the sand-dredging company Direct Access in 2015.

They were released when a judge suspended the last eight months of their sentences, and they subsequently filed an appeal against a $25,000 fine they were ordered to pay.

After filing that appeal, however, they fled the country in late January 2017 to boycott the appeal process because they feared that the court would issue an unfair ruling.

San Mala returned to Cambodia two months later, saying that he felt it was safe for him to come back.

In February 2015, Cambodian authorities refused to renew the visa of Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, Mother Nature’s director, and expelled him from the country.

Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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ASEAN, Beijing Agree to Talks on South China Sea Code

China and ASEAN said they both agreed Sunday to a framework for talks on a “code of conduct” in the disputed South China Sea, but the Southeast Asian side indirectly criticized Beijing’s territorial expansion there in an unusual statement.

The foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said they warmly welcomed “improving cooperation” with China and were encouraged “by the conclusion and adoption of the framework of a code of conduct in the South China Sea,” in a joint communique. They issued it late on Sunday evening (local time) after meeting with Beijing’s top diplomat in Manila during the day.

China and ASEAN will start negotiations later this year on a code of conduct governing actions in the disputed sea region after both sides agreed to a framework, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters following the meeting, which was held behind closed doors.

In their communique the ASEAN ministers confirmed that the regional bloc was ready to begin “substantive” negotiations on a code of conduct.

But in an oblique reference to China’s efforts to expand in the potentially mineral-rich sea region – such as through building artificial islands, air strips and other installations – they also noted “concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

“We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states,” according to the short section on the South China Sea included in a 46-page communique.

China and Taiwan, as well as four members of ASEAN – the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei – all have territorial claims in the sea, and overlapping claims have been a source of tensions. The sea is strategically important because it is home to a third of the world’s shipping lanes.

‘Positive momentum’

Wang Yi said the climate in 2017 between states that have claims to the sea region had improved and was more conducive to peace. 

“The atmosphere of this year is different from the past,” Wang said. “China and ASEAN countries have been working together for the past year and we fully recognize that.”

“Thanks to our concerted efforts, the current situation in the South China Sea is showing positive momentum,” he said, adding that China and ASEAN recognized a current trend towards “relaxation” of tensions in the sea region.

When the situation in the South China Sea becomes “generally stable and if there no major disruption from outside parties,” both parties can then start their consultations in time for the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in November, the Chinese foreign minister said.

“China and ASEAN have the ability and wisdom to work together to maintain regional peace and stability,” he said. “And we will work out regional rules that we mutually agreed upon so as to open up a bright future for our future relations.”

Before the ASEAN countries came out with their statement on the South China Sea, the 10 ministers were divided over the issue, according to reports.

The ministers had been debating for at least two days on how to respond to China collectively, with Vietnam said to be strongly resisting an agreement on the framework for a code of conduct as pushed by Beijing. 

“There’s still no consensus,” a diplomat said earlier during the weekend, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Vietnam is adamant, and China is effectively using Cambodia to champion its interests. But the Philippines is trying very hard to broker compromise language.”

In past months, the Philippines had pushed for a code on the South China Sea to be legally binding, according to diplomatic sources.  

Sino-Filipino relations over sea

The ASEAN-China meeting was part of a flurry of one-to-one meetings held Sunday between foreign ministers from the Southeast Asian bloc and top diplomats from other countries including Japan, the United States, India and Russia.

The meetings in Manila, hosted by the Philippines, this year’s holder of the ASEAN chair, took place on the eve of the ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual security meeting bringing together 27 countries.

Wang did not elaborate on to whom he referred as the “outside parties,” but his announcement came shortly after the U.S. Navy carried out “freedom of navigation” exercises near disputed islands, as it sought to counter-balance perceived Chinese bullying in the disputed area.

The current ASEAN chairman, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, has made it a priority to repair bilateral ties with China, which has rejected an international court’s ruling in 2016 that invalidated its claim to the entire sea region.

Duterte made a state visit to China last year, and also threatened to sever security cooperation with Beijing’s traditional rival, the United States.

In 2013, Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, took Beijing to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague after Chinese vessels were spotted in Scarborough Shoal, which had for years been a traditional fishing area for Filipinos.

The area consists of rocks and shoals and is only about 200 km (125 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon. 

The court last year threw out China’s historical claims to the region. The court said that, in effect, no country had sovereign rights over the rocky outcrop, therefore entitling all countries with overlapping claims to use its resources.

The ruling angered China, putting the region on edge amid fears that it could force Beijing to retaliate militarily. Beijing since then has carried on with its expansionist moves in the sea region, and intelligence officials said it may be deploying weapons on the islands it occupies. 

Following the court decision last year, Duterte himself said that he told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he planned drilling explorations in the area. But he claimed that Xi threatened him with war if he went ahead with implementing those plans.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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Cambodia Arrests Opposition Party Chief Nhek Bun Chhay

Authorities in Cambodia on Thursday detained former government advisor and opposition Khmer National United Party (KNUP) President Nhek Bun Chhay in connection with five-year-old allegations of drug production, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

“He was arrested today for the Kampong Speu [province] drug production case from 2012,” ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak told reporters in the capital Phnom Penh, adding that the KNUP chief was being held at the National Police Headquarters for questioning.

The Associated Press cited National Police Deputy Chief Gen. Mok Chito as saying that Nhek Bun Chhay had been arrested at his home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Thursday.

It was not immediately clear why the allegations against Nhek Bun Chhay, who is also a former commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, were being revisited five years later.

Nhek Bun Chhay was removed from his role as adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)-led government following Cambodia’s June 4 commune election for allegedly pledging his support to the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

According to the allegations, he had been recorded in a phone call with CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhay Eang saying he could deliver votes from his supporters in communes his party did not contest. The KNUP won one seat in the local elections—the only one not taken by the CPP or CNRP.

Despite denying that he had conspired with the CNRP, Nhek Bun Chhay was sacked as a government adviser—a position he had held for nearly five years—along with more than a dozen other party members in the weeks that followed.

In 1997, while a member of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, Nhek Bun Chhay led a failed armed resistance against a coup by Hun Sen. His party later formed a coalition with the CPP and he was named deputy prime minister in 2004.

An adviser to Nhek Bun Chhay was arrested in Kampong Speu along with 17 other people in 2007 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for drug production.

No legal action was taken against Nhek Bun Chhay at the time, but police said Thursday that the 2012 allegation was related to the bust in Kampong Speu.

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has been accused of using the country’s court system to jail his opponents on what observers say are politically motivated charges.

Last week, Cambodia signed into effect a controversial new amendment to the country’s Law on Political Parties, as international and domestic nongovernmental organizations slammed the legislation they said will undermine the democratic process ahead of general elections set for July next year.

The amendment—proposed by the CPP and adopted on July 10 by its members of parliament amid a boycott by opposition lawmakers—bans parties from associating with or using the voice, image, or written documents of anyone convicted of a criminal offense.

Political parties found in violation of the amendment could be banned from political activities for up to five years and prohibited from competing in elections, or even dissolved.

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

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Australian Woman, Two Cambodians Sentenced in Surrogacy Case

A Cambodian court sentenced an Australian nurse and two Cambodian women on Thursday to 18 months in prison for their roles in providing surrogacy services in the country, media and other sources in Cambodia said.

The three were convicted on charges of falsifying birth certificates and other documents and acting as intermediaries between adoptive parents and pregnant women.

The Australian woman, Tammy Davis-Charles, 49, was also ordered to pay a fine of four million riels (U.S. $1,000 approx.), while Cambodian nurse Samrith Chanchakrya, 35, and Cambodian man Penh Rithy, 28, were each fined two million riel, or about $500.

Surrogacy is not illegal in Cambodia, though Cambodia’s Ministry of Health issued a temporary ban on the practice in November 2016 pending the drafting of relevant legislation.  The three sentenced on Thursday were arrested just weeks later, media sources said.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Ros Sopheap—executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Gender and Development for Cambodia—questioned the fairness of the verdict against the three and the sentences imposed.

“Cambodia does not have a law on surrogacy, though the court used other laws related to the case for this trial,” she said.

“This really calls into question whether justice was done.”

Difficult cases

Surrogacy should not be made legal in Cambodia, though, she said, citing controversy over a case in neighboring Thailand where a surrogate mother delivered twins.

“Unfortunately, one of them was born with a birth defect, and the adoptive parents took just one of the children and left the child with the birth defect behind for the surrogate to raise.”

“This has left her in a very difficult situation,” she said.

Thailand passed a law in 2015 banning foreigners from hiring Thai women as surrogates after high-profile cases sparked debate the previous year. Those found guilty of paying surrogates in Thailand can receive a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

In November 2016, Cambodia banned surrogacy arrangements. But four months later, the foreign ministry said the government was preparing to draft a new law to make surrogacy legal “in order to control and prevent Cambodian children who are born via surrogacy from becoming victims,” the international surrogacy group Families Through Surrogacy said in June.

Meanwhile, fertility services and embryo imports remain legal in Cambodia, the group said.

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

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Cambodia Social Affairs Minister Demands Civil Servants Back Ruling Party

Cambodia’s social affairs minister has ordered all civil servants to support the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in next year’s general election or resign, and threatened anyone who protests the ballot’s results with violence, prompting a rights group on Wednesday to demand that he be sacked.

Speaking at a promotion ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh on Monday, Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Vong Sauth slammed what he called a bid by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to “poison” society and undermine Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to local media reports.

“The opposition says that the CPP, and especially Hun Sen, just does whatever he wants to do,” the Phnom Penh Post quoted Vong Sauth as saying, before proceeding to suggest that doing so is the prime minister’s right.

“He does whatever he wants to do—in compliance with the law, and the law gives him that power. And everyone who breaks the law will be arrested and put in prison.”

The minister went on to remind civil servants that their salaries are paid by a state built by the CPP, and that they are obligated to support the ruling party.

“Officials eat the state’s salary, and are asked to be neutral, but do not forget that the state was born from the party, and I think all of our officials must have the clear character of firmly supporting the party,” Vong Sauth said, according to the Post.

“If anybody does not support the CPP, submit applications of resignation, and I can help you [with that], but if you are loyal to the CPP you must vote for the CPP, and then you can stay,” he said, adding that a win for the party in next year’s national elections was crucial.

According to a report by the government-aligned Koh Santepheap Daily, the minister then said that protests against the results of the general election set for July 29, 2018 would be met with a crackdown in which protesters’ heads would be “hit with the bottom end of bamboo poles.”

Such a response would be entirely within the rights of the authorities, he said, because the CPP can create the laws to allow it.

The heavy ends of bamboo poles were regularly used by Khmer Rouge soldiers to execute Cambodians deemed enemies of the state during the 1975-1979 rule of the murderous regime.

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has warned repeatedly that electoral wins by the CNRP in local elections held on June 4 and next year’s general ballot would bring instability and war to the country.

And in May, defense minister Tea Banh said that Cambodia’s party-controlled military would “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a CPP win.

Results from the June vote saw substantial gains in commune leadership by the opposition, in what many observers say may be a bellwether for 2018.

Call for sacking

On Wednesday, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, called for Vong Sauth to be immediately removed from his position for his “outrageous remarks that demonstrate he knows nothing about either human rights or democracy.”

“He is clearly unfit for a job promoting social welfare when he thinks it’s alright to threaten to beat people with bamboo poles if they dare voice opinions different from the government, or peacefully protest to air their grievances,” he said in a statement.

“And he shows his ignorance of modern democratic principles when he fails to recognize that in a democracy, it is politicians who are elected to make decisions on law and policy, but the civil servants have different duties, such as carrying out the day to day functions of government in an impartial and professional way.”

Threatening civil servants who don’t back the ruling party and groups that comment on electoral politics “is a dictator’s logic” that coerces the public into following orders, Robertson said, and violates Cambodia’s international obligations to protect rights such as freedom of speech, association and peaceful public assembly.

“Clearly, [Vong Sauth] is trying to prove his loyalty to his political master, Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said.

“But in the process, [Vong Sauth] has made himself looked ignorant, besmirched Cambodia’s already poor international reputation, and confirmed what many people are saying—that Cambodia has already slid well into dictatorship even before the votes are cast in 2018.”

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

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Expels Charity Rescuing Child Sex Slaves

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of an American-led Christian organization that rescues child sex slaves, saying comments the founder made in a recent media report amounted to a “serious insult” against the country.

On July 25, CNN broadcast a follow up to a report it ran four years ago, interviewing three girls from Svay Pak—a suburb on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh—who had reportedly been sold into the sex trade by their mothers and later rescued by Agape International Missions (AIM), a charity operated in Cambodia by American pastor Don Brewster since 1988.

According to Brewster, Svay Pak had at one point been the center of child sex trafficking in Cambodia, but had improved dramatically in recent years. Child prostitution continues in the area, he said, although not as openly as it once did.

On Tuesday, while addressing a commencement ceremony at Koh Pich Island in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said that AIM’s contribution to a report which said that mothers in Cambodia had sold their daughters into prostitution was a “serious insult against Cambodian women” and ordered the organization closed.

“This kind of organization will be investigated,” he said.

“I order the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs to scrutinize this case and promptly shut down [the organization]. Such an act cannot be tolerated.”

Hun Sen also demanded that the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh investigate AIM’s activities, which he said would lead to the shutdown of “other NGOs involved in this case.”

Under Cambodia’s controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), pushed through parliament by the ruling party in 2015, authorities have the right to close down any group that poses a threat to national security or defames the country’s “traditions and culture.”

Hun Sen’s order followed a July 27 statement from president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia Huy Vannak to CNN that implied AIM had made efforts to “inflate certain issues … to acquire funding from Western donors at the cost of [the] Cambodian image.”

Huy Vannak, who is undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Interior and news chief for the government-aligned Cambodian Television Network (CTN) and Cambodian News Channel (CNC), also took issue with CNN’s headline, “The Cambodian Girls Sold For Sex by Their Mothers,” saying the girls in the report were ethnic Vietnamese. CNN later removed the word “Cambodian” from the title.

CNN stood by its reporting, however, in a comment to the Phnom Penh Post on Monday, saying its stories “revisit our original investigation from 2013 and clearly highlight the progress that has been made since by the authorities in Cambodia.”

While many of the residents of Svay Pak are Vietnamese immigrants, reports by NGOs and arrest records suggest that the children of impoverished majority ethnic Khmer are also at risk of sex trafficking.

Ongoing investigation

On Tuesday, in response to Hun Sen’s order, secretary of state for the Ministry of the Interior Pol Lim refused to provide details about AIM’s situation, saying an investigation into the organization is ongoing.

“[I can’t elaborate] until we review everything—we must first look into the legality of [the organization], including whether they registered [as an NGO] or not, and second determine whether the organization has breached any law,” he said.

Calls to Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Chum Sunry went unanswered Tuesday.

Representatives of AIM said Tuesday that they were unable to discuss the situation with RFA’s Khmer Service, as the organization is awaiting the results of the Ministry of the Interior’s investigation.

The U.S. embassy’s spokesperson in Phnom Penh, Arend Zwartjes, referred questions about AIM’s activities to the organization.

He commended Cambodia’s “impressive strides [in] countering child sex trafficking,” citing recent reports by the U.S. Department of State, but acknowledged that “challenges remain.”

“We believe that committed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), working closely with the Government and the international community, are a very important part of the solution,” he said.

Cambodia received a Tier 2 ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons report—a classification assigned to “governments of countries that do not fully meet the minimum standards [set by U.S. law to eliminate human trafficking] but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.”

Am Sam Ath, the head of domestic civil society group LICADHO’s investigations section, said Tuesday that his organization does not support any entity found to be in breach of the law, but urged the government to conduct its investigation of AIM independently and transparently.

He said that the public has the right to know whether AIM was involved in any illegal operations or if its activities affected Cambodia’s image, adding that shutting the organization down without presenting evidence could been seen as a threat to all NGOs in the country.

“Our country abides by law and the expertise of the authorities,” he said.

“Nevertheless, there must be an investigation prior to any shutdown decision. There must be a proper investigation that produces evidence of any offenses committed or how the organization acted against the NGO law, so as to avoid confusing the domestic and international community.”

Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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