Amid the ongoing street protest to release unionist Rong Chhun and Khmer Win Party president Soung Sophorn who were arrested over their comments concerning the border issues, the Ministry of Interior has instructed authorities to take legal action against such activists, labelling them as “inciters” causing chaos.
The strong action from the ministry has ended a month-long protest along the streets, especially in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, resulting in some activists going into hiding.
A source close to the protest organisers said yesterday that since Ministry of Interior issued the statement on Monday, asking local authorities to take legal action against the Khmer Thavarak movement and Mother Nature Cambodia activists, some of them were forced to temporarily cease their activities or go into hiding to avoid arrest.
“They are in hiding for personal safety,” the source said. “Police this morning also surrounded an activist’s house, in order to arrest him and they [the activists] are concerned over the current situation.”
Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was arrested on July 31 for alleged “incitement” over the border demarcation issues with Vietnam.
Sophorn was arrested in mid-August for distorting the truth about border issues. He is among the leaders of protests against the arrest of Chhun.
In a statement released late Monday, the Ministry of Interior said the two groups had been operating under the guise of having clear organisations but they are not registered with the ministry under the Law on Association andNon-Governmental Organizations.
“Meanwhile, Khmer Thavarak and Mother Nature Cambodia groups have been carrying out acts of incitement to undermine stability, security, public order and cause social unrest through the use of social media and other media to disseminate leaflets, pictures, videos and carry out demonstrations without permission.” the ministry said.
It also appealed to the people not to participate in such protests, calling them “illegal activities”.
“At the same time, the Ministry of Interior requested the relevant authorities to take legal action to ensure public order and national security, especially to prevent any anarchy and social unrest while people are preparing to celebrate Kan Ben and the Pchum Ben festival,” the ministry added.
Since last month, ex-CNRP, members of civil society organisations, national and international unions as well as the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) have issued separate statements, calling for Chhun’s immediate release but government officials have rejected the calls.
Chum Huot, president of the Lover Environment and Society Association and who actively participated in protests and submitted petitions to several embassies asking for intervention, said the safety of activists is being threatened.
“We decided to delay all protests because of the crackdown and threat of legal action from local authorities,” he said. “The activists are concerned about personal safety, so they cannot participate in the protests like before. Now, they are hiding in safe places.”
Huot claimed that the City Hall had used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to ban the activists from gathering in a peaceful assembly at the Freedom Park in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district.
On August 28, three activists Mean Prum Mony, Tha Lavy and Eng Malai had informed the city hall about plans to hold a peaceful demonstration to find justice for Chhun from Monday to September 15 between 8am and 6pm.
In a letter, they said fewer than 200 people would take part in the demonstration in accordance with the Constitution as well as Law on Peaceful Demonstration.
In a response letter dated September 2, City Hall deputy governor Mean Chanyada refused permission for the demonstration, saying it could cause “danger, or seriously affect security, safety and public order.”
Despite the ban, some of the activists gathered at the Freedom Park on Monday, where Lavy was detained by authorities. His arrest follows those of three environmental activists – Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phoun Keo Raksmey –for incitement.
The Justice Ministry also recently warned it would act against activists who defy a ban on holding protests to demand the release of Chhun, saying those who continue to protest and demand the release of Chhun could face legal action from authorities.
Ministry of Interior spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said yesterday that groups which organised the demonstrations were illegal and were not registered with the ministry.
Asked if the groups could cause social unrest, Gen Sopheak gave the example of the Arab Spring protest in the Middle East, which were a series of anti-government protests that toppled some governments.
“A small fire can destroy a house,” he said. “If we can stop such small protests like this, then we [will successfully], meet one, smash one.”
He said between “10 to 20 people” were arrested by authorities over protests to demand Chhun’s release.
“We cannot allow the groups to destroy peace for the population of 16 million. The prison more than welcomes them,” he added.
Sopheak said those who stop their activities from now on may not be arrested but those who continue to do so will face legal action.