A year ago, huge streams of young Cambodians moved through the streets of Phnom Penh, rallying to take on the increasingly putrid government of President Hun Sen, who had been in power for 28 years. Together, they wrought a remarkable election in the face of heavy intimidation.
After the polls closed, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had won 55 of the seats in the 123-seat National Assembly. Despite the fact that his own party, Cambodian People’s Party took 68 of the seats, Hun Sen appeared to be stunned at the result. It was his worst showing in 15 years and probably could have been a lot worse if the count had not been rigged, according to international poll-watchers.
The opposition reckoned that an honest count would have given them at least an additional eight seats and control of the National Assembly. As it was, the 55 seats to the opposition were counted as a dramatic psychological blow against the administration.
The country has remained tense ever since, with an ongoing series of strikes and public rallies against the government, which is regarded as corrupt and brutal. Mu Sochua, an elected member of parliament who is one of those charged, has been at the forefront of the protests for months.
The growing tension exploded into violence on Tuesday when demonstrators attempted to open Phnom Penh’s Democracy Plaza, also known as Freedom Park, and security forces attempted to stop them. The park was created under a 2009 law as a place for the exercise of freedom of assembly and expression. However, Hun Sen ordered the park closed to end protests against the flawed 2013 elections and in support of garment workers who were killed in January when police opened fire on hundreds of protesters during the strike-related unrest.
The site has since been barricaded for the past several months and occupied by security forces, including the public order para-police, who have come under growing criticism for their brutality. The government has also banned all other demonstrations elsewhere.
The crowd of party leaders, activists and supporters who sought to reopen the park on their own were met by security forces seeking to push them back, striking them with batons. At that point, the demonstrators turned violent, beating security forces and severely injuring three. In all, 40 people were reported injured.
The upshot is that six members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party have been charged in a Phnom Penh court with insurrection, intentional violence and obstructing government officials after a rally Tuesday exploded into violence after it was broken up by government security forces. Given Cambodia’s bent courts, they are likely to be convicted.
Those charged include five members-elect of Cambodia’s National Assembly. Besides Mu Sochua they are Ho Vann, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavrin, and Riel Khemarin. The sixth is Oeu Narith, a party youth activist. All are being held at Prey Sar prison outside Phnom Penh. According to government-owned media, more summonses have been issued for CNRP leaders to report for questioning.
After the violence, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia urged all sides “to immediately exercise utmost calm and restraint” and reiterated his call for an end to the official ban on demonstrations. The UN Human Rights Office said that what had begun as peaceful protests led by members of the opposition quickly escalated into violent clashes
“I call on the Government to guarantee the constitutional right to peaceful assembly for all Cambodians with immediate effect by lifting the existing restrictions on assembly, and to ensure the fair treatment of those arrested in strict accordance with the human rights standards relations to the administration of justice,” Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi told reporters in Geneva. “Yesterday’s events have shown that the shrinking democratic space in Cambodia since January is having negative effects on the enjoyment of human rights for all,”
The authorities charged the six under Cambodia’s Criminal Code as criminal “instigators”for leading an insurrectional movement, committing aggravated intentional violence, and inciting others to commit a felony. If convicted, each faces up to 37 years in prison.
“This is a setback for democracy in Cambodia,” Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights told Agence France-Presse
However, the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch said it had “found no evidence to suggest that any of the six organized, incited or participated in the violence. During dozens of public gatherings and events the party has held, party leaders have consistently espoused nonviolence.”
Human Rights Watch, the NGO said in a prepared release, “is unaware of any evidence, as required under the “instigator” article, that any of those charged gave instructions or orders for a crime to be committed or otherwise provoked a crime by means of a gift, promise, threat, instigation, or persuasion.
Human Rights Watch called Cambodia’s international donors who have propped the country up for decades, to “take a strong stand against this latest attempt by the Hun Sen government to use the courts against opposition politicians. These charges against CNRP leaders call for a unified response from donors, who shouldn’t play the game of saying they hope the legal process will be fair,” Adams said. “Instead, they should call for charges to be dropped against those not involved in violence and for their unconditional release.”