Prime Minister Hun Sen Takes over ASEAN 2022 Chairmanship; Facing International Pressure, Rong Chhun & 17 Activists Released from Prey Sar Prison

Rorng Chhun Released 11/12/2021

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Rong Chhun, a prominent union leader and rights defender, and 17 activists were released from prison on Friday, November 12, 2021. The Phnom Penh Court of Appeals gave no reason for the release. The release of the activists took place after Prime Minister Hun Sen attended the 38th ASEAN Summit on October 28 virtually, chaired by Brunei and also attended by President Joe Biden.

Cambodia will host the 2022 ASEAN Summit and Prime Minister Hun Sen will be chairman. The summit becomes even more important, as he hopes foreign ministers from the United States,  China, India, and Japan will attend in-person. Cambodia officially became a member of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on April 30, 1999. Other member states are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia hosted the ASEAN summits for the first time in 2002 and the second time in 2012.

Prime Minister Hun Sen takes over ASEAN Chairmanship on October 28, 2021

In amid of ASEAN chairmanship, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned those who opposed his government, posted by Fresh News, a government friendly news outlet, that he “will do what it takes to crack down protests during Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship”, and added that “If you violate the law, you will be sentenced even amidst Cambodia’s hosting ASEAN”. His message was a warning to hundreds of opposition party supporters, who were rounded up and jailed in the last two years for incitement and treason.

Rong Chhun is president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and has considerable political influence. He advocates for worker rights, living wages, and often opposed Hun Sen’s government. He was arrested in July 2020 because he issued a statement for the Cambodia Council Watch, reporting his visit to Cambodia’s Tbong Khmom province, where villagers complained that the Vietnam border posts have been moved into their land, forcing them off their land. The report stated that the Vietnam border posts resulted in the loss of “hundreds of hectares” that belonged to Cambodian farmers.

The government’s Border Committee issued a statement accusing him of spreading “fake news” about the border demarcations. He was convicted and charged for inciting social unrest, sentenced to two years in prison. He was recently released at 15 months and 11 days, without a reason given by the court. Rong Chhun was received by cheering supporters outside of the prison, and he said he’ll continue his work and urged all Cambodians to fight for freedom and democracy. Rong Chhun served as one of the 7 national election committee members, representing the opposing Cambodia National Rescue Party until it was dissolved by court order in 2017, before the 2018 national election that had lead the ruling party to winning all seats.

Two other defendants, Ton Nimol and Sar Kanika, who were convicted of incitement to commit a felony while demonstrating to release Rong Chhun in August 2020, were also released.

Prime Minister Hun Sen will be chairing the 10-nations of ASEAN in 2022. It is a one year term and Hun Sen is aware of his legacies and the chance to prove himself to the world.

The release of Rong Chhun and other activists is seen as a step for the Cambodian government  in trying to improve its image as Chair of the ASEAN. However, according to Human Rights Watch, hundreds more political dissidents are still detained. Kem Sokha, president of the dissolved opposition CNRP, is still prohibited from participating in political activity. The United Nations released a statement on November 2nd pressuring the Cambodian government to take the immediate steps to safeguard Cambodia’s civic and democratic space by implementing recommendations they accepted at the 2019 Universal Periodic Review. Among these were a pledge to create conditions where “civil society, including human rights defenders, can freely carry out their work without interference or hindrance.”

Chin Malin, Cambodian Spokesperson of Ministry of Justice

On October 21, the United States Senator Edward Markey [D-MA] introduced a bipartisan legislation S.3052 – Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2021-2022 to promote free and fair election, democracy, political freedom, and human rights in Cambodia. Chin Malin, Cambodian Spokesperson of Ministry of Justice downplayed, “the bill is motivated by a small number of outlawed Cambodian opposition members and a few U.S. lawmakers is political in nature and does not reflect the actual situation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia.” He is confidence it will not pass the senate because of Cambodia – US national interest through bilateral cooperations, and Cambodia will be the host of 13th Asia – Europe Summit this year on November 25-26 and become the Chair of ASEAN in 2022.

“The Cambodian People deserve what was promised to them in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements – a representative democracy that reflects the popular will, not oppressive single party rule,” said Senator Markey, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia. “This legislation makes clear that the United States will not stand by as Hun Sen and his cronies corrupt Cambodian democracy, persecute and jail opposition and political activists, target free speech and independent media, and enrich themselves through rampant corruption.”