Khmer News in En

Opposition Leader Kem Sokha Returns from US Trip to Focus on June Election

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha returned to Cambodia on Tuesday after a 17-day trip to the United States, saying he had drummed up U.S. interest in key local elections next month and reached out to Cambodian-Americans across the country.

Kem Sokha and his Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) face a contest with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for 1,646 commune council seats on the June 4 ballot that many see as a bellwether for general elections in 2018.

“The international community, especially the new government of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Congress and NGO people listened to my presentation on the political situation in Cambodia and the election process,” he told reporters upon arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport.

“They paid attention to the upcoming elections. They wanted to know more about this. In particular, they wanted to know about the CNRP’s point of view should it win the election to lead the country in the future,” added Kem Sokha.

He declined to give substantive comments on the trip, his first trip to the United States since taking over the reins of the CNRP in February after what effectively was the forced resignation of former leader Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile in France since late 2015 and has had numerous defamation lawsuits filed against him, with many still pending trial.

Kem Sokha said he had given presentations on the upcoming elections to Cambodian communities in 13 U.S. states, as well as to U.S. lawmakers and officials of the Trump administration.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 communal elections, held before the CNRP was formed.

Domestic monitors, however, detected scores of cases of irregularities during the election campaign, including intimidation, vote-buying, and the destruction of parties’ leaflets and logos.

The opposition party went on to win nearly half the vote in a general election in 2013.

This time around the CNRP is one of 12 political parties competing for the commune posts. Some analysts believe that the CNRP could pose a challenge to the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years.

Hun Sen and other top government officials, however, have issue a stream of threats and warnings that voting against the ruling party will lead to violence and war.

Official campaigning begins on May 20 and runs for 12 days.

The CNRP will hold a convention on Wednesday to elect a party vice president, a title Kem Sokha held until February, to comply with a ruling by the country’s interior ministry that rejected the party’s previous method of selecting a deputy leader.

Reported by Samnang Rann and Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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Cambodia's Defense Chief Threatens to 'Smash Teeth' of Political Opposition

In the latest in a series of government threats against opposition political forces in Cambodia, Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh warned on Sunday that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party in elections next month.

Speaking at the opening of a public building in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, Tea Banh said that the country’s military will quickly suppress any protests by Cambodia National Rescue Party members like those that followed the CNRP’s loss in national elections in 2013.

“If you lose the elections and contest the results by taking to the streets to protest, we will smash your teeth,” the defense minister said.

“I’m warning you in strong terms that we won’t allow such protests again.”

Tea Banh’s remarks came less than a week after Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen warned of civil war if the public does not support his ruling Cambodian People’s Party in local elections across the country on June 4.  

Hun Sen, who has already ruled Cambodia for three decades, has made similar threats in recent months, with CPP-controlled media regularly alluding to violence if the party loses.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible CNRP win in national elections scheduled for 2018.

‘Serving the party, not the people’

Phnom Penh-based political commentator Meas Ny told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday that Tea Banh had exceeded the limits of his authority by threatening Cambodian voters.

“As minister of defense, he has now crossed the line. It seems that he serves Cambodia’s ruling party rather than its people,” Meas Ny said.

“It is also a violation of the constitution that a senior official of the country’s armed force should interfere with the responsibilities of the Ministry of Interior,” he said.

“The armed forces should deal only with armed conflicts. It is against the law for the armed forces to suppress or kill civilians who exercise their freedom of speech by protesting peacefully.”

Also speaking to RFA, CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann questioned the motive behind Tea Banh’s weekend remarks.

“I don’t understand why he has chosen to threaten the public with statements like this,” he said.

“The CNRP listens to the people. We respect their will.”

Cambodia’s National Election Commission will convene a meeting in the next two weeks to address the issue of threats and warnings that members of both parties have made in the run-up to the June vote, with the NEC looking to see what measures must be taken to avoid future incitement, the commission has said.

Reported and translated by Nareth Muong for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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Cambodia Election Watchdog Slams Capital Ban on Campaign Marches

A Cambodia election watchdog on Thursday slammed an order banning campaign marches from major avenues in the capital Phnom Penh as a violation of the right to expression in the lead up to the country’s June commune elections.

In a May 5 notice to the National Election Commission (NEC), the nation’s top electoral body, the government of Phnom Penh announced that all political parties are prohibited from marching on most major streets in the city as part of a bid to ensure public security and avoid traffic congestion.

The ban—which covers main avenues such as Norodom Boulevard, Russian Federation Boulevard, Preah Monivong Boulevard, and Preah Sihanouk Boulevard—also extends to parks and markets, as well as other crowded spaces, the notice said.

According to regular electoral rules, political parties are permitted to campaign for 12 days ahead of the June 4 ballot, beginning May 20, but may hold campaign marches for only two days.

Sam Sokuntheamy, the head of Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), on Thursday urged the local government to reverse the ban, which he said limits free speech and reduces opportunities for political parties already facing strict limits on marching.

“The government should be providing more chances for political parties to march on the streets as part of their campaigns, as they currently only have two days to do so,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

In the week since the ban was announced, members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and local civil society groups have flooded the NEC with requests to override the ban, but the electoral body has yet to issue a statement addressing the concerns.

On Thursday, head of legal and election affairs for the CNRP Meng Sopheary told RFA that the party recently sent another letter to the NEC, which the commission accepted, saying the request would be discussed next week.

“We want to inform the people who live along the city’s main avenues of our party’s political platform,” she said.

At the time the ban was announced, NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said the commission supported the ban and called on all political parties to adhere to it. He refused to comment on the ban Thursday.

NEC secretary general Tep Nitha has told RFA that the ban was announced in response to members of the public and vendors “complaining that some political parties campaign at the markets, schools, and hospitals without adhering to the requirements of City Hall.”

Opposition forum

The ban on marches came as a CNRP candidate in Kampong Thom province’s Baray district accused local authorities of threatening area residents who had hoped to attend a public forum hosted by the opposition party.

Mao Chheng Eam, CNRP candidate for Srolao commune, recently told RFA that only 70 people showed up for the May 7 forum out of an expected 200 attendees, and residents said local authorities—including village chiefs and deputy chiefs—had prevented them from participating.

“They threatened supporters and also local [opposition] party leaders,” he said, adding that authorities had also closely followed his own activities.

Opposition supporters have similarly been prevented from gathering at local pagodas and other public spaces, Mao Chheng Eam said.

CPP member Pol Chhin, the chief of Srolao commune, denied that CNRP supporters had been banned from taking part in opposition activities, adding that local authorities had given the party full permission to proceed with the May 7 forum.

“I will investigate these accusations and punish anyone who is found to have done so,” he told RFA.

Senior investigator for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) Kon Savang told RFA that all political parties have the right to engage with their supporters without fear of bans or discrimination.

While commune chief Pol Chhin understands this right, he said, some of the village chiefs and deputy chiefs under him may have acted independently to intimidate opposition supporters.

“You have allowed one party [the CPP] to do whatever they want, but banned another party [the CNRP] from doing so,” Kon Savang said, calling on authorities to explain their actions.

Nearly 8 million voters have registered to elect the leaders of 1,646 communes and wards across the country on June 4 from among 12 political parties, including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP.

The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The CNRP won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.

Reported by Zakariya Tin and Sokheng Saut for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Detained Vietnam Labor Activist in Poor Health: Lawyer

A human rights defender held in detention for online activism is in poor health and has been refused visits from her family, according to her lawyer, who met with her Thursday for the first time since she was arrested nearly four months ago.

Tran Thi Nga, 40, was arrested on Jan. 21 in Phu Ly, the capital city of northern Vietnam’s Ha Nam province, and charged under Article 88 for “using the internet to spread propaganda videos and writings” against the state.

The labor and land rights activist also known as Thuy Nga faces up to 20 years in prison.

On Thursday, Nga’s lawyer Ha Huy Son met with her at the Ha Nam Police Detention Center and told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that she is suffering complications from an injury she sustained in May 2014 when a group of men armed with pipes assaulted her for her campaign work.

“Her health is not so good—she suffers from knee pain due to the brutal attack some years ago,” he said.

In a video of the 2014 attack, assailants beat Nga while she rides on the back of a bicycle with her children, chase her into a nearby car dealership, and return three times to inflict harm. The assault sent her to the hospital with an arm and leg in bandages and splints, and left her body covered in swollen bruises.

Meanwhile, Son acknowledged that the charge against Nga under Article 88—for what is considered a “national security offense”—allows for her incommunicado detention throughout the investigation of her case.
“In accordance with the law, she is only entitled to meet her defending lawyer,” he said.

“There are no stipulations for family visits.”

Son told RFA that he was unable to copy Nga’s case documents during Thursday’s visit because a representative of the prosecution was not present, but said he would try to do so when he next meets with her.

“If she is formally prosecuted, [her case] would take at least two months,” he added.

Nga is well known for defending the rights of Vietnamese migrant workers and victims of government land grabs.

The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents— is a major cause of protests in Vietnam and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Cambodia.

In February, more than two dozen Vietnamese civil society organizations and nearly 850 individuals signed a petition demanding Nag’s immediate release.

According to the petition, Nga was harassed, attacked, and monitored before her arrest, and was innocent when she carried out her peaceful activities advocating for human rights and democracy.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Alludes to Peacekeeper Killings as Warning of Civil War

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday condemned the killing of four Cambodian United Nations peacekeepers in Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this week, and warned similar violence and civil war is likely to descend on Cambodia if his ruling party loses local elections in June.

Cambodian U.N. peacekeeper Im Sam, a 36-year-old bulldozer driver, was shot to death during an ambush by the largely-Christian Anti-Balaka terrorist group in CAR while traveling in a convoy from his work site to his base on the night of May 8, according to Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense.

Three other peacekeepers who had gone missing during the convoy attack—quality control assistant Seang Norin, 35, excavator driver assistant Mom Tola, 31, and medical staffer Mao Eng, 37—were later found dead, the ministry confirmed Wednesday.

The four are members of an unarmed crew of Cambodian engineers accompanied by armed Moroccan forces in the CAR. Im Sam is Cambodia’s first peacekeeper to ever be killed in combat.

Eight Anti-Balaka fighters were killed on Monday night, with a number of people wounded on both sides, including a fifth Cambodian peacekeeper, driver Thuch Thim, who was shot in the left hand and is now recovering.

The Phnom Penh Post cited Cambodia’s National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces (NPMEC) as confirming that the attack near the village of Yogofongo, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Bangassou, was motivated by Anti-Balaka demands to liberate prisoners held by Moroccan forces.

Speaking at an event to mark Veteran’s Day in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said Cambodia would not be intimidated by the attack.

“Cambodia will continue to send peacekeepers abroad—we shall never be defeated by the acts of terrorism,” he said, adding that 15 million Cambodians, including around 110,000 members of the armed forces and about 60,000 policemen, are “readily prepared for peacekeeping operations.”

The prime minister then shifted gears, suggesting that terrorism and other forms of lawlessness would never be allowed to occur in Cambodia while he is in charge of the nation.

Hun Sen also warned that he will do whatever it takes to keep the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from “ruining” the achievements he has made during his 32-year tenure as leader of Cambodia.

“I shall protect these achievements at all costs—that means the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] CPP shall win all elections,” he said.

“Be warned that, during the [commune] elections in [June] 2017 and 2018 [general] elections, if you continue to [hold protests about election results] you will be cracked down on immediately by the armed forces. I don’t care if war erupts.”

War of words

The strong man said that the opposition should also be careful about what it says in the lead up to the June 4 election.

“Even though you say that you have no guns, war is not necessarily started with weapons,” he said.

“It could be started simply with words. If you claim to love peace, you must educate your underlings to stop cursing [the CPP].”

Advocating for economic sanctions against Cambodia—such as a ban on buying garments or freezing foreign aid—because of human rights abuses is also a way that the opposition is instigating war, according to Hun Sen, who likened such statements to “killing Cambodian workers and farmers.”

In response to Hun Sen’s comments about economic sanctions, CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann told RFA’s Khmer Service that the opposition had never called on foreign countries to cut aid to Cambodia.

“We have called for foreign countries to help ensure that foreign assistance is used transparently and accountably,” he said.

“We don’t want foreign aid to fall into the hands of corrupt individuals and want to make sure it benefits all Cambodians. We want donor countries to ensure that the government respects human rights and democracy and that development is genuine and benefits everyone equally.”

Hun Sen has previously warned of violent upheaval in recent months, with CPP-controlled media regularly alluding to civil war as the country prepares for commune elections in June.

In February, the prime minister hinted that he might deploy military force against any political party that attempts to wrest power away from him with a victory in national elections scheduled for July 2018.

Hun Sen, who has already ruled Cambodia for three decades, has previously suggested he would remain in power for 10 more years.

Nearly every previous incident of major political violence in Cambodia since it emerged in the early 1990s from brutal rule by the Khmer Rouge followed by civil war has been attributed to Hun Sen’s ruling party.

The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The CNRP won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.

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

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Cambodia’s Agriculture Ministry Again Pledges to Stop Illegal Timber Exports

Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has ordered its provincial offices to stop all illegal logging and timber trafficking activities in an apparent response to a report exposing an industrial-scale timber laundering operation that Vietnamese companies and corrupt Cambodian authorities started late last year in the country’s northeastern Ratanakiri province.

The report issued on April 8 by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) charges that corrupt government officials and military personnel in Vietnam have been smuggling huge quantities of illegal timber from Cambodia, despite the latter country’s ban on log exports to its neighbor.

Those involved in the operations are pocketing millions in bribes from timber smugglers for allowing hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of hardwood logs stolen from Cambodia’s national parks to be laundered into Vietnam’s lucrative timber economy.

The order dated May 8 and publicly released on Tuesday says the agriculture ministry has taken note of the existence of forest and land-clearing as well as the seizure of forest land for private ownership.

“Illegal logging across the country has continued, especially in the areas near the borders with our neighboring countries,” the order said. “The ministry shall therefore issue this order for the forestry officials to stop all illegal logging activities.”

Ouch Leng, an investigative reporter and activist who has exposed illegal logging and corruption in the Prey Lang forest in Cambodia and who won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize, applauded the move.

He said what appears to be the government’s first official admission that a crackdown on the illicit timber trade fails to be a good sign that the agriculture ministry has acknowledged the problem.

But he added he has no faith in the ministry’s ability to tackle the crime because of its past failures to honor its promises.

“I don’t think the government is very genuine and determined in setting out strict measures to address these issues,’ he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “That’s because the people who are involved in the illegal logging business are members of the government or the armed forces.”

Seng Sok Heng, who works in the secretariat of the Prey Lang Community Network, said he has no faith in the ministerial order because some law enforcement officials in the forestry sector will continue accepting bribes for their compliance in illegally exporting timber.

“The cancer in the law enforcement sector has entered a very late stage,” he said. “It’s too little, too late now. Such action should have been taken much earlier.”

The EIA’s report said that approximately 300,000 cubic meters of logs have been smuggled out of Cambodia and laundered in Vietnam, and that kickbacks to Cambodia authorities have likely amounted to more than $13 million since early last November.

Cambodia has had a ban on illegal timber exports to Vietnam since 1986.

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

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