Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Vorn Pao was shocked when an employee of his association was arrested in May this year while collecting the names of families living along the Thai-Cambodian border facing food shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The association wanted to ensure that hungry families received the support they needed, but the authorities saw the situation differently.
“He was accused of having violated the [COVID-19] law while he went to certain prohibited areas, ”said Pao 46, director of the Association for Independent Democracy in the Informal Economy, IDEA, an association created to help people working in the economy informal.
Kang Nakorn was held for five hours and was only allowed to leave after signing a document promising not to collect any more names and to notify authorities if communities had any problems. He was then sent to complete a 14-day quarantine for the coronavirus.
“He is still being watched by the authorities every second,” Pao said.
In recent years, non-government workers and community workers have faced similar restrictions from the government.
As Cambodia has more than 5,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and associations, their ability to carry out their work is increasingly hampered as the government clamps down on criticism and seeks greater control over the space. political and civic politics of the country.
“NGOs working on human rights and environmental issues tend to be in a difficult position vis-à-vis the authorities, due to extensive oversight and pressure from the latter, as well as the government. shrinking political space ”, Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Officer. rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, told the United Nations Human Rights Council in its first report on the human rights situation in the country.
The regression of human rights
On October 26, for example, a court in Phnom Penh fined 14 people, while giving them prison terms of up to two years, after some of them staged peaceful rallies in in favor of jailed human rights defender Rong Chhun.
Some were charged with “incitement” – the same allegation against Chhun that led to a two-year prison term.
“The trial consisted mainly of asking the activists whether they had obtained prior permission to assemble, and whether they had anyone from outside the country encouraging or paying them to participate in the peaceful appeals for the release of Rong Chhun, ”Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), a leading human rights group that followed the trial, said in a statement following the ruling.
The human rights situation in Cambodia has declined sharply since the 2017 elections.
In this election, the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), again performed well after nearly winning the national elections in 2013.
Shortly after the 2017 poll, the party was forcibly dissolved. Since then, more than 100 of his supporters have been prosecuted.
The government has also been accused of using the pandemic as a pretext to further quell dissent.
The COVID-19 law, introduced in March this year to curb the spread of COVID-19, provides for sentences of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $ 5,000 for those who violate protocols. health issues such as restrictions on the size of gatherings and mask wearing.
He effectively banned street protests.
“The space for fundamental freedom is getting narrower and narrower, especially free speech rights during the COVID-19 crisis; the government used [the COVID-19 law] as a tool to block the rights of civil society organizations working to promote human rights in Cambodia, ”said Muntarbhorn.
Often, officials use the law as a tool “to threaten their legitimate activities,” he added.
The special rapporteur said the COVID-19 law led to the arbitrary arrests of more than 700 people between March and October this year, sometimes for posting a comment on the coronavirus on social media.
Muntarbhorn said the law is “troubling for Cambodia” because it “has concentrated power and restricted democratic freedoms, including with regard to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“I have described the pandemic in Cambodia as both a calamity and an opportunity, compromising economic growth but also offering a chance to ‘reset’ that would allow a large population of young Cambodians to have more of their say. say about the leadership of the country and greater power. sharing between a variety of stakeholders.
CPP official Kong Kheang was arrested and charged with incitement and defamation this week for making serious allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Chea Sophara.https: //t.co/454Uljqv4J
– English VOD (@VOD_English) October 29, 2021
Phay Siphan, the government spokesperson, has little time for criticism.
“The special rapporteur does not know [the real situation]”he told Al Jazeera.
“First, he only flew to Cambodia for a day or two. Second, he is not doing the job well. It’s his part-time job, so he reads reports prepared by NGOs to produce a bogus report that doesn’t tell the truth but rather goes against the government.
Activists in Cambodia are more than ever at risk of attack.
People have been arrested as they planned to hold solo protests, others as they filmed sewage being released into the river, raising concerns over pollution.
“The country’s political space is completely closed. Even the most basic forms of civic participation – collecting sewage from a river, or holding a sign in front of a courthouse, or living on one’s own land – now face arbitrary arrests, prison terms, and scandalous multi-year accusations, ”said LICADHO director Naly Pilorge.
“Cambodia is bleeding its best and its best in a never-ending and growing onslaught of oppression. When our space “shrinks,” those on the front lines are kicked out and sent to one of the country’s overcrowded prisons.
Vulnerable in danger
Chin Malin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice and the Cambodian government’s Human Rights Commission (CHRC), however, said there was room for criticism and advocacy in the country, to provided that the work is carried out in accordance with the law.
“Our civilian space has not diminished,” he said. “But those who exercise their rights in violation of the law and violate the rights of others, or commit an offense, must face the law. This type of judicial procedure is not a restriction on liberty because the [critics] accused.”
Last year, a number of NGOs and associations received letters from local authorities advising them that they should be inspected on the number of people working in their office. The plan raised concerns that authorities were planning to use the visits to interfere in their affairs, and it was stopped after local media became aware.
Pao says his association received the letter, but is more concerned about the government’s use of the “incitement law,” which was used to indict Chhun after he wrote a commentary on the Cambodia border. Vietnam on social media, and also trapped dozens of others in civil society.
Pao, who was himself arrested and jailed in January 2014 after joining a mass protest to demand higher wages, said his NGO must notify authorities even when they book a hotel, hold a conference or organize a meeting.
He fears that the increasing surveillance will make it nearly impossible for them to do their jobs and that those who need help the most will suffer.
“If space is still so tight, it is difficult for us to help [our members] who need help, ”he said. “And these people will be reluctant to tell us about the challenges they face. “