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ASEAN MPs call for immediate release of Cambodian union leader

Southeast Asian parliamentarians have today (5 August) called on Cambodia’s authorities to immediately release and unconditionally drop all charges against union leader Rong Chhun, who was arrested late last week, and to end all attacks on those that peacefully voice their concerns. 

Rong Chhun (Source: ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights)

“Rong Chhun is being punished for doing precisely what the Cambodian government is unwilling to do – addressing people’s concerns over their land and livelihoods,” said Sarah Elago, a Philippine Member of Parliament (MP), and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). “Chhun’s arrest and detention reflects the highly repressive environment that human rights defenders operate in under Hun Sen’s regime. Cambodians should be able to peacefully air their grievances without the fear of reprisals. Rong Chhun must be immediately released, and all charges against him dropped.’ Elago said. 

Chhun, a vocal political activist and President of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was arrested without a warrant at his home on July 31, and a day later taken to Phnom Penh Municipal Court where he was charged with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code. He is currently being held in pre-trial detention in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 1, and faces a potential two-year jail term and a fine of up to 4 million Riel (USD 970). 

His arrest came shortly after the government’s Cambodia Border Committee claimed Chhun had disseminated “fake news” based on “groundless accusations” in comments made following a visit to the Cambodia-Vietnam border in mid-July. According to media reports, on July 21, Chhun issued a statement on behalf of the Cambodia Watchdog Council saying irregularities in the placement of border posts had resulted in farmers losing access to land. 

Days before his arrest, Chhun also joined a group of garment workers who gathered to submit a petition outside the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen to ask for his help following their factory’s closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Cambodia, garment workers have been some of the most heavily affected by the crisis, with hundreds of factories reportedly asking the government for permission to suspend their operations entirely or partly. 

“Once again in Cambodia, it is the poorest and those in the most vulnerable situations who are hurting the most as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Chamnan Chanruang, an APHR member and former Thai MP. “Instead of harassing and arresting those speaking up on their behalf, the Cambodian government must focus on providing them with social security, as well as a post-COVID19 economic recovery that closes the glaring inequalities the virus has exposed.” 

Chhun’s arrest is  part of a worrying trend of the continued crackdown on civil society, independent media, and political opposition in Cambodia, a situation that has gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, APHR said. Since March, dozens of human rights activists, journalists and political opponents have been arrested for merely raising concerns about the virus. In April, the government introduced a state of emergency law granting itself unfettered powers.