Cambodia’s government on Tuesday slammed what it said is an ongoing campaign of “disinformation” led by Western governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party as part of a bid to unseat it.
In an 11-page report entitled “To Tell The Truth,” the government detailed what it suggested were concerted efforts to undermine the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) by foreign powers and the media, which it said heavily favor the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“For years, Cambodia was the subject of disinformation led by some foreign governments and organizations, which twisted historical facts and events in an attempt to portray a negative image of Cambodia and to lay the blame on the government,” the report said.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia [is] issuing this paper … with the aim of clarifying and setting the records straight on various controversial issues.”
Among the most controversial issues at the heart of the smear campaign, the government said, were criticism over recent amendments to Cambodia’s political party law and an NGO law passed in 2015—both seen as restricting the activities of the groups they concern.
Amendments to the political party law were approved by the National Assembly, or parliament, on Feb. 20, despite an opposition boycott. They include articles that put parties at risk of dissolution for “jeopardizing the security of the state” and “provoking incitement” that critics say are intentionally vaguely worded.
Cambodia’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) was passed with unanimous approval by ruling-party lawmakers, also amid a boycott by the opposition. The law requires the 5,000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the developing country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and shut downs.
Other issues cited in the report included allegations that Cambodia’s judiciary lacks independence and that the government is seeking to limit freedom of expression by using the courts to level defamation charges at reporters and critics of the ruling party.
The government also expressed concerns that NGOs and foreign journalists are biased against the CPP and that Western countries hold Cambodia to unreasonable standards of human rights protections despite its “extremely short history of modern state-building.”
Observers, however, roundly rejected the report as “groundless” and an attempt by the ruling party to whitewash political machinations and poor governance ahead of local elections scheduled for June and general elections in 2018.
Political commentator Meas Ny told RFA’s Khmer Service he was “unsurprised” by allegations in the report.
“This is simply a routine of denial by the government and … nothing but an attempt to keep its skeletons in the closet—it’s just a façade,” he said.
“The government has the right to give the public its own version of an event. However, in this age of advanced technology, it’s hard for the government to conceal the facts about what is actually happening on the ground.”
CNRP senior lawmaker Son Chhay agreed that the report was “nothing new” and dismissed it for what he called a lack of supporting evidence.
“It is groundless to allege that Western countries are favoring the opposition party, while NGOs are helping Cambodians in general, not the opposite,” he said.
“Not only does the paper fail to reflect the truth, but its exaggerated concerns are unsubstantiated.”
Call for release
Meanwhile, residents of several communities in Cambodia’s southeastern Tboung Khmum province held protests Tuesday, calling for the release of a land rights campaigner, four jailed rights group officials and the deputy of the National Election Committee (NEC), the country’s electoral body.
The protesters from Memot and Dambae districts urged the government to free land activist Tep Vanny, ADHOC officials Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Lim Mony, and NEC deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya ahead of the April 14-16 Khmer New Year so they can be reunited with their families.
A community representative from Chambak village in Dambae’s Trapeang Pring commune named Yaim Veng told RFA that the protesters hoped to secure a royal pardon for the six detainees, who he said were innocent and unjustly imprisoned.
“May we humbly ask the royal government led by Samdech [honorific] Hun Sen and King [Norodom] Sihamoni to release the activists,” he said.
In February, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed Tep Vanny a 30-month sentence for aggravated intentional violence, based on a plaintiff’s testimony that she ordered marchers to attack security forces during a 2013 protest near Hun Sen’s home. Other witnesses said the security forces initiated the attack.
A wide-ranging probe into a purported affair by CNRP president Kem Sokha led authorities to charge the ADHOC officials with bribery and the NEC official with accessory to bribery for attempting to keep the opposition leader’s alleged mistress quiet. All five have been held in pre-trial detention for nearly 350 days.
Another resident of Trapeang Pring named Pheng Samoeun said that “every villager knows who the bad guys and good guys are,” adding that if the courts continue to detain innocent people, the impartiality of the judicial system will be questioned and support for the government will be eroded ahead of commune elections set for June 4.
“We do not agree with what the government is doing to them—even ordinary citizens are fully aware of this injustice,” he said.
“The government should stop burying its head in the sand.”
Ny Chakrya’s attorney Som Sokong told RFA his client’s detention had left him in a poor state of mental and physical health, and also affected his family and work with the NEC ahead of the commune elections.
“There are abundant procedures that allow for his release,” he said, adding that the court should consider freeing him by next week.
Jailed CNRP lawmakers
Also on Tuesday, a group of opposition lawmakers traveled to Prey Sar prison in the capital Phnom Penh to visit jailed CNRP parliamentarians Hong Sok Hour and Um Sam An.
After the visit, senior opposition lawmaker Ho Vann told reporters that the two men remain “strong and determined,” and called on the CNRP to remain united so that it can secure a victory in the June commune elections.
Ho Vann said the government has not indicated it is willing to resume discussions about releasing the lawmakers.
In November last year, Hong Sok Hour was found guilty of forging and publishing public documents and of incitement to cause instability, when he posted a disputed copy of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam treaty on Facebook that said the two countries had agreed to dissolve their mutual border.
Um Sam An was handed a two-and-a half year sentence in October 2016 for “inciting discrimination” and “inciting social instability” for posts on the lawmaker’s Facebook page accusing the CPP of failing to stop land encroachment by Vietnam and using improper maps to demarcate the border between the two former colonies of France.
Months earlier, Hun Sen had ordered police to arrest anyone accusing the government of using “fake” maps to cede national territory to Vietnam, which invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Reported by Sovannarith Keo, Sokheng Saut and Samnang Rann for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.