Cambodian union leader Rong Chhun was charged with “incitement” and jailed in Phnom Penh Saturday, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border, according to court officials and lawyers.
The outspoken activist’s arrest over an issue that touches nationalist nerves and evokes sympathy for poor farmers drew about 100 supporters to a protest in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court demanding his release.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” and is being held in Prey Sar prison, pending trial, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Deputy Prosecutor and court spokesman Kuch Kim Long told RFA.
“After questioning him, the judge decided to detain Rong Chhun temporarily,” he said.
The charges fall under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code, with a broad definition of incitement that includes creating “serious turmoil in society” through public speech or sharing writings or drawings, or videos with the public.
“The charges of incitement are not justified,” said lawyer Choung Chou Ngy, one of Rong Chhun’s four-member defense team. “It is unjust.”
He said the four lawyers will meet to request bail for Rong Chhun. An incitement conviction carries prison terms of six months to five years and fines.
“He did not comment any crimes,” said Choung Chou Ngy.
Border concerns resonate
Rong Chhun is a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC) – an umbrella NGO of unions representing teachers, workers, farmers, and students – whose criticism of the government’s stance on border demarcation resonate with people who live near the border, said a supporter from Svay Rieng, a southern province that juts into Vietnam.
“He was only talking about the border. Rong Chhun should not have been arrested and detained,” said villager Yos Sophoan.
“He is a Cambodian. He loves his country. People are concerned about the border,” he told RFA.
The banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party also condemned the arrest in an appeal for international pressure to secure Rong Chhun’s “freedom without any conditions.”
On July 20, Rong Chhun had visited Trapeang Phlong commune, in Tbong Khmum province’s Ponhea Kraek district, where Cambodians claimed recently placed border posts had caused them to lose land to neighboring Vietnam.
The following day, he issued a statement on behalf of the Cambodia Watchdog Council in which he cited irregularities with the placement of border posts 114 to 119 that resulted in the loss of “hundreds of hectares” (one hectare = 2.5 acres) of ancestral land belonging to area farmers.
On Friday, Cambodia’s official Cambodia Border Committee rejected Rong Chhun’s claims that any farmers had lost land, saying his organization had disseminated “fake news” based on “groundless accusations.”
The CWC says that farmers are losing land because Cambodia is demarcating the border based on a 1985 treaty from Vietnam’s 1979-89 occupation of the country following its ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Unresolved border issues between Cambodia and Vietnam, former French colonies from the 1860s to 1954, have sparked incidents in the past, with the construction by Vietnam of military posts in contested areas quickly challenged by Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh.
A joint communique signed by Cambodia and Vietnam in 1995 stipulates that neither side can make any changes to border markers or allow cross-border cultivation or settlement pending the resolution of outstanding border issues.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
Read More: Cambodia Union Chief Arrested on ‘Incitement’ Charges in Vietnam Border Dispute