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The year in review

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The ruling CPP swept all 125 National Assembly seats in the July 2018 national election. KT/Chor Sokunthea

From the ruling CPP’s sweeping election victory, to the conclusion of multiple, high-profile court cases and freedom granted by royal pardons to jailed activists, the year saw many intriguing developments, along with several tragedies that included a spate of deadly wine poisonings in Kratie province and the cover up of a murder.

CPP sweeps national election

The ruling CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly during the national election in July, which saw a voter turnout of 83 percent, with 6,956,900 valid votes and 594,659 invalid ballots. The CPP dominated the other 19 political parties by garnering 4,889,113 votes, 77.36 percent of all valid ballots. The 125 lawmakers re-elected Heng Samrin as National Assembly president, Nguon Nhel as first vice president and Khuon Sodary as second vice president. Prime Minister Hun Sen then revealed his new cabinet, which did not change except for the addition of a new ministerial post. All 28 current ministers retained their positions, while Mao Havanall, secretary of state for civil aviation, was elevated to become Minister in charge of the Secretariat of Civil Aviation.

A slew of pardons

In August, just weeks after sweeping the national election, Prime Minister Hun Sen began requesting royal pardons for more than a dozen inmates viewed as political prisoners by the international community. Those who gained freedom included 12 former opposition members jailed for insurrection and incitement over their roles in a violent clash between CNRP supporters and Daun Penh district security guards at Freedom Park in July 2014. Khmer Power Party president Sourn Serey Ratha, who had been jailed for just over a year after being convicted of inciting military personnel to disobedience, and demoralisation of the army, was also granted a pardon, along with land activist Tep Vanny.

Former opposition members granted royal pardons get a water blessing. KT/Mai Vireak

Kem Sokha granted bail

Former opposition leader Kem Sokha was released on bail on September 10 after more than one year behind bars on treason charges, which still linger over his head as he enjoys limited freedom under court supervision. Mr Sokha’s bail conditions restrict his movement to a four-block radius around his Phnom Penh home. Mr Sokha was jailed on treason charges in September 2017 over comments made in 2013 video footage from Australia-based CBN news, which showed him saying the US government had been helping him to push for regime change in Cambodia.

Adhoc 5 case concludes

Phnom Penh Municipal Court in September convicted four human rights defenders and a National Election Committee official of bribery, but handed them each five-year suspended sentences for their roles in bribing a witness linked to an alleged affair by former opposition leader Kem Sokha. Adhoc staffers Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony, as well as National Election Committee official Ny Chakrya, were found guilty of bribing witness Khom Chandaraty to have her deny the affair with Mr Sokha. The Adhoc 5, as the group was dubbed throughout the high-profile case, were arrested in 2016 after they were questioned by the Anti-Corruption Unit over allegations that they instructed and bribed Ms Chandaraty to deny the affair. They were then released on bail in June 2017.

Hun Sen backs unionists

Prime Minister Hun Sen in November urged an end to listless court cases against several union leaders, arguing the lingering cases were hampering their work. His plea led to the Justice and Labour Ministries speeding up the cases against six union leaders, specifically charges against them over their roles in deadly 2013 and 2014 protests, which left at least five demonstrators dead after authorities opened fire as the situation turned violent. Phnom Penh Municipal Court then found the six union leaders guilty, but suspended their sentences. The following day, Mr Hun Sen said he knew for a fact that three of the six were not involved in the fatal protests and promised to aid the leaders clear their names through the appeal process.

Political party law amended

The Senate passed an amendment to Article 45 of the Law on Political Parties in December that could pave the way for hundreds of former opposition members banned from politics by the Supreme Court to re-enter the political arena. The amendment was aimed at promoting national unity and strengthening multi-party democracy as the EU reviews the Kingdom’s access to its Everything-but-Arms trade initiative.

Khmer Rouge leaders sentenced to life

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in November sentenced ageing Democratic Kampuchea leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan to life in prison for crimes they committed from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge orchestrated a genocide against its own people, leaving an estimated 1.7 million people dead. Both had already been sentenced to life for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ECCC, a joint establishment between the government and the United Nations, has so far tried three senior leaders of the brutal regime and sentenced them to life imprisonment, including Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who commanded S-21 torture centre.

Dr Beat Richner dies

Dr Beat Richner’s ashes now reside in the Kingdom. KT/Ven Rathavong

Dr Beat Richner, the founder of the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals, died at the age of 71 in September. Dr Richner was born on March 13, 1947, and died in Zurich, Switzerland. Dr Richner set up the first hospital in 1992 and oversaw them until 2017, when he stepped down due to a serious medical condition. Since his death, his sister Annaregula Lutz brought his ashes from Zurich to be kept in the Kingdom, his second home. Hundreds of people, including students, lined the streets to watch the procession as his ashes were transported to be placed in a stupa in front of Jayavarman VII hospital, a branch of the Kantha Bopha Children’s hospitals in Siem Reap province.

Australian espionage

In August, Australian journalist James Ricketson was sentenced to six years behind bars for espionage. Mr Ricketson, 69, was arrested in June 2017 while documenting an opposition CNRP rally and was held in pre-trial detention until the verdict, which did not disclose the country he was spying for. Rights groups decried the case and shortly after his sentencing, his legal team opted to drop the appeal process in order to seek a royal pardon. In late September, Mr Ricketson was granted a royal pardon and flew back to Australia from Phnom Penh International Airport.

Deadly Kratie wine

In a spate of deadly poisoning cases, more than 15 people died in Kratie province after ingesting methanol-laced rice wine. In May, hundreds of villagers fell ill after drinking the wine, which left at least 13 villagers dead. The poisoning case was blamed both on the wine and contaminated water from Prek Ter stream, which led villagers to blame gold-mining run off from neighbouring provinces, a theory dismissed by the government. In July, another three villagers died in the province, again from rice wine poisoning. In October, another case emerged, leaving hundreds ill once again and killing five villagers, leading to the arrest of rice wine producer Kuch Sok Heng, 31, on unintentional murder charges.

Surrogacy crackdown

Following two high profile cases of illegal surrogacy businesses being run in the Kingdom, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said surrogacy is spreading and the government is committed to combatting the scourge, which is linked to human trafficking. Mr Kheng confirmed that the government, via the Woman Affairs and Justice ministries, is working on formulating a law on surrogacy. Nearly 50 people were arrested in the two cases, which followed on the heels of Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles being sentence to 18 months behind bars in late 2017 over her illegal surrogacy business. Both the ringmasters and the surrogates faced charges under anti-human trafficking laws.

Murderous Takeo governor

Dr Beat Richner’s ashes now reside in the Kingdom. KT/Ven Rathavong

In April, Takeo provincial governor Lay Vannak and deputy provincial police chief Lay Narith, his older brother, were arrested and charged over the murder of Mr Vannak’s mistress, whose death was covered up as a suicide. Mr Vannak lost his governorship, and was booted from the CPP, as the scandal progressed. The body of Chev Sovathana, a National Assembly staffer and member of the CPP’s youth group, was found by her maid hanging dead in her rental room in January. Police initially closed the case as a suicide, but spurred by unavoidable evidence and complaints from the family, reopened it and discovered the murderous plot to kill Ms Sovathana.

KNLF suppression

In October and November, authorities arrested and jailed a total of 12 suspects believed to be connected to the Khmer National Liberation Front and its most recent plot to overthrow the government. Police have confiscated 29 AK-47 assault rifles, one handgun, and a number of explosives and ammunition. All 12 were charged with trafficking illegal firearms, and are now in jail pending trial. The Interior Ministry said the group received money from exiled KNLF president Sam Serey for the attempted coup. However, Mr Serey has repeatedly denied the accusations of a plot to overthrow the government, stressing that his group does not have firearms or money. Mr Serey was sentenced to nine years in prison in absentia two years ago after a court found him guilty of plotting an attack in a separate case. He fled Cambodia in 2010 and has since remained in exile in Denmark. Since 2014, about 20 KNLF members have been convicted of incitement and plotting to topple the government.

Boat breaks world record

The dragon boat took seven months to construct. KT/Jean-Francois Perigois

A group of youths and the Prey Veng administration broke a Guinness World Record in November for the longest dragon boat, stealing the honour from China. The boat, 87.3 meters long and 1.99 metres wide, can accommodate 179 people and took seven months to construct. Patel Pravin Jasmastbhai, a Guinness World Records representative, said that the Cambodian boat stole the title from China, which previously held the record with a 77.80-meter long boat.

Explosive Akira museum

Siem Reap authorities in September shuttered the Cambodian Landmine Museum, also known as the Akira museum after its owner Oeun ‘Akira’ Yeak, after an explosion sparked a fire. Mr Yeak and and two of his subordinates were charged with illegal weapons possession in the wake of the explosion after authorities found the museum lacked proper permits. Mr Yeak spent a few months behind bars before being granted bail. Just last week, Siem Reap Provincial Court granted him permission to reopen the museum as his bid to do so was supported by Senior Minister Ly Thuch, vice president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. Mr Yeak is a former Khmer Rouge child soldier who has devoted his life to demining, including with the Cambodia Self Help Demining organisation, which has cleared 155 landmine fields. Mr Yeak has won multiple international awards, including the CNN Hero in 2010 for his demining work.

RT news fixer jailed

Rath Rott Mony, a news fixer who aided the production of a Russia Today documentary on sex trafficking, was jailed on charges of incitement to discriminate over his involvement in the production of the film. The film – “My Mother Sold Me”, went viral in October and angered the government, which dismissed it as fake news after sources featured in it retracted their statements on how young Cambodian girls were sold for sex to feed their impoverished families. Mr Rott Mony was detained by Thai authorities on December 7 while at a visa office as he attempted to seek asylum in the Netherlands, and was deported back to Cambodia on December 12. The 27-minute RT documentary detailed destitute families in Cambodia selling off their daughters’ virginity for about $400 each, and when their girls’ virginity was lost, they were then forced into prostitution.

The minimum wage

The Ministry of Labour increased the minimum wage for workers in the textile and footwear industries to $182 per month, starting in January 2019. The Labour Advisory Committee, comprised of unions, government and industry representatives, tabled two final figures before compromising on $177. Prime Minister Hun Sen then added a $5 boost to bring the total to $182, up from 2018’s minimum wage of $170.

Natural disasters strike

More than 100 people died and more than 50,000 were injured in natural disasters in 2018, according to a report from the National Committee for Disaster Management. The report noted that 88 people died from lightning strikes, 56 during floods and six during storms. Flooding affected to 121,720 families, with more than 11,000 evacuated from their homes. Nearly 100,000 hectares of farmland were damaged by the floods as well, along with about 10,000 kilometres of roads. On the other end of the spectrum, droughts also affected at least 20,000 hectares of crops in 13 provinces this year, with Kampong Cham province suffering the most.

 

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