Gender-Based Violence and Women Human Rights Defenders

CCHR joined the Human Rights Day Celebration at the Olympic Stadium and raised awareness of women’s rights

On the final day of activism of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (“GBV”), we call for an end to GBV in Cambodia and for an end to GBV against women human right defenders (“WHRDs”). Despite significant efforts by the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”), GBV against women remains an issue of serious concern, particularly the high prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault. According to a 2015 research report by the World Health Organization, 21% of female respondents had experienced sexual or physical assault at the hands of their partner.

As recognized by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”), such violence is, in part, justified by social norms and legitimized by persistent discriminatory stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and society. According to the Chbab Srey, the traditional rules for women and girls in Cambodia, the perfect woman is the obedient wife. The women who do not conform with such stereotypes are often stigmatized, harassed or subject to GBV. This is particularly evident in the treatment of WHRDs who speak out against injustices (most often) perpetrated by men in power.

Like their male counterparts, WHRDs often experience violence, as well as threats, harassment, or arrest at the hands of the authorities or private actors, such as the companies and their private security forces that they are fighting against. They may also face restrictions on, and monitoring of, their activities and impacts on their careers.

But, in addition, WHRDs may also face GBV and other risks, such as domestic violence, sexual violence, family breakdown, and threats against their children. All of these issues often have a severe impact on the mental health of WHRDs, resulting in stress, anxiety and mental illness.

In spite of this, women are often at the forefront of their communities’ activism, particularly in relation to land conflicts. These WHRDs are often driven by the need to provide food and shelter for their family. Yet when women move away from their traditional ‘housewife’ roles to campaign for greater land security, there is an increase in instances of domestic violence. Due to flawed and inadequate legal protections against domestic violence and a culture of impunity for such crimes, such violence often goes unpunished. For example, a study by LICADHO found that only 20% of domestic violence cases monitored between January 2014 and December actually led to criminal proceedings.

In other areas, such as predominantly female industries like garment, textiles and domestic work, women who take on leadership roles to fight for the rights of fellow workers have similarly faced discrimination, intimidation and violence.  

In order to end GBV against women and WHRDs, the root causes of this problem must be addressed. In line with CEDAW’s recommendations, the RGC must adopt a comprehensive strategy to eliminate discriminatory stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes from Cambodian society.

Of course, GBV itself must be stopped. A key step would be to review and amend the Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victims so that it comprehensively addresses all forms of GBV experienced by women in Cambodia, particularly domestic and sexual violence. Impunity for these crimes cannot continue and perpetrators must be investigated, prosecuted and adequately punished.

The impact of GBV on women must also be addressed by providing further support to victims/survivors of GBV, such as legal assistance, health-care services and psychosocial support. In order to achieve this, the RGC should provide funding and establish at least five “one-stop service centers” by 2024 for the provision of such support. Given the current lack of such support, CCHR seeks to continue our work in protecting WHRDs by providing them with legal assistance and training so that they can challenge violations of their rights as well as seek support for humanitarian and psychosocial assistance to help them avoid high risk situations and mitigate the impact of traumatic incidents. We also work to raise the visibility of female activists. By giving a platform to their leadership and activism we want women to be seen as key players in social change and decision making, rather than as victims.

Ultimately, the work of WHRDs should not be criticized but encouraged. As community leaders and civil society activists, these women are promoting and protecting the rights of their families, colleagues and communities. The violence against them, along with all GBV against women, must stop. CCHR calls on the RGC to implement the recommendations of CEDAW to eliminate discriminatory attitudes and end GBV against women in Cambodia, and joins Klahaan’s campaign highlighting these recommendations.

Furthermore, to mark these 16 days of activism, CCHR along with other CSO’s and Trade Unions further renewed its call on the government to provide resolutions on “11 key issues and take actions to respond to our women’s needs” as prescribed in a petition submitted to them on the occasion of International Women’s Days in March and on International Labour Day in May 2019.

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2019, we celebrate Cambodia’s Indigenous Peoples’ rights

CCHR met with local communities and Indigenous People in Kratie Province in March 2019 to get an update on their challenging experiences with the issue of land dispute.

On the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we wish to jointly celebrate Cambodia’s indigenous communities’ rights.

The rights of Indigenous peoples are guaranteed under Cambodian and International human rights law. These rights include the right to tradition, the right to religion, as well as the right to land and the right to free and informed consent.

Despite these guarantees, indigenous peoples in Cambodia have lost their land at an alarming rate due to large-scale logging of forests, resource extraction, infrastructure projects, and land concessions. In response to these challenges, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) has, in theory, recognized collective land rights of indigenous peoples; the 2001 Land Law and the Sub-Decree No.83 on the Procedures of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities provide for specific recognition of the concept of collective ownership of land, allowing indigenous communities to legally register their communal lands under collective land titles (“CLTs”).

Traditionally, indigenous peoples in Cambodia sustain their livelihoods through cultivating forested land, utilizing a technique known as shifting cultivation, as well as hunting wild animals and gathering forest by-products. In addition, the beliefs, traditions, and identities of indigenous communities in Cambodia are closely tied to the land, which carries major spiritual significance as a link to their ancestors and natural spirits. Despite the importance of land to indigenous communities and the comprehensive legal framework that protects their land rights, in practice the process of obtaining a CLT is lengthy and extremely complex, often subject to lengthy delays due to a lack of political will. Moreover, a lack of implementation of the law has led to Cambodia’s indigenous communities fast losing their communal land and natural resources. As of May 2019, only 24 out of 458 indigenous communities have received CLTs.

The alienation of indigenous people from their land threatens the very existence of Cambodia’s indigenous population. We therefore renew calls on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take appropriate steps to protect the rights of indigenous communities. In particular, the RGC should take concrete measures to facilitate the procedures for CLTs, in line with several recommendation accepted by Cambodia during it third Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”). These include the recommendations to “Take measure to simplify the allocation of community land concessions to indigenous peoples” (110.21), and to “Step up efforts in land matters, including through the effective and transparent implementation of measure to tackle land evictions, and provide the victims of land grabbing, particularly indigenous people, with fair compensation” (110.130).

Furthermore, indigenous rights defenders in Cambodia have faced increasing risks in conducting their legitimate work advocating for the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples’ rights, including acts of violence. We renew calls on the RGC to promptly take measures to protect human rights defenders (“HRDS”), and specifically ensure that HRDs are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction or judicial harassment and other forms of harassment or violence. The RGC must also conduct impartial, thorough and effective investigations into all cases of attacks on and harassment and intimidation against HRDs, including indigenous rights activists, and bring the perpetrators to justice. This in line with Cambodia’s commitment under the UPR to implement a number of recommendations including the recommendation to “Protect […] human rights defenders, […] from harassment, arbitrary arrest and physical attacks, and investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks” (110.113).

Sopheap Chak, 8 August 2019.

On World Press Freedom Day, we call for protection of journalists and a free press in South East Asia and across the world


Throughout Southeast Asia, too many journalists face risks as a result of their profession, including violence, harassment, and criminal charges. This is despite the fact that states are obligated to prevent, protect against, and prosecute attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, and uphold freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right which includes the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, in diverse forms. Its value is particularly high in the context of political discourse.

On World Press Freedom Day 2019, journalists and media outlets have the opportunity to celebrate their work and the multiple ways in which they contribute to a more transparent society. In democratic societies, the role of the media is crucial to ensure that reliable information reaches the public, including coverage of human rights abuses. Importantly, it is crucial that women are involved in both the content creation and creative control of media in order to ensure that gender-based violations come to light, and to provide a parity of gender perspectives and voices in the content that we read, hear and watch. However, if a landscape for independent media is not enabled and supported by states, a journalist’s work becomes perilous.

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, jailed for their reporting on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims, recently had their latest appeal rejected by Myanmar’s Supreme Court. They were charged with violating a colonial-era secrets law for carrying out work to expose the atrocities committed by the country’s military, which has been accused of genocide by the United Nations. In the Philippines, repeated judicial harassment against journalist and free press advocate, and critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule, Maria Ressa, has seen her arrested twice within two months. In Vietnam, the blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who was previously detained for two years due to his critical blogging on the Communist Party’s leadership, is currently being held without charge at a detention center in Hanoi after he went missing in Bangkok, where he had applied for refugee status.

Here in Cambodia, former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were held in pre-trial detention for over nine months on spurious charges of espionage, and finally released on bail in August 2018. The charges continue to hang over them. Both reported on a number of human rights issues including land disputes, workers’ rights, and the use of state violence. Over the last two years, measures taken by the government have seriously weakened free press in Cambodia, and today there is a shortage of independent, impartial and rigorous news reporting. The closure of the Cambodia Daily and RFA offices in Phnom Penh, as well as the sale of the Phnom Penh Post, have made truly independent media outlets scarce.

Due to this onslaught against its independent media, Cambodia fell one place in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), to 143 of 180 countries. Across Southeast Asia, six of the 11 countries in the region also dropped on the WPFI, while Malaysia leads the way as one of the three countries that moved up the index.

Freedom of information and freedom of expression are fundamental rights, and journalists must be permitted to exercise them in order to do their work, including by exposing corruption, criticizing public policy, and illuminating human rights violations, without fear of negative repercussions.

A journalist’s work should be secure, safe and supported. On World Press Freedom Day, we call for protection and support of our independent media, from publishers, from the government, and from the public.

Commentary by Sopheap Chak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)’s Executive Director and SEAPA – Southeast Asian Press Alliance board of trustees chairperson on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2019

Never Forget Kem Ley

by CHAK Sopheap, Executive Director, CCHR

Kem Ley at CCHR Radio Talkshow

Photo courtesy of CCHR: Kem Ley at one of CCHR’s human rights radio talkshow.

It was a very relaxing and fresh morning in Sihanoukville. I was driving down a road that ran alongside a peaceful beach with my husband. Suddenly, the phone rang, and I picked it up. It was my colleague, which worried me because I knew she would never call me on a Sunday, especially knowing I was on leave for my 5-year wedding anniversary. Her voice was terrified as she quickly said: Mr. Kem Ley was killed. She continued that he was killed at Starmart, near our office. I was not sure how to respond; I asked her if she was sure, holding on to the possibility that she could be wrong and the information she had was fake. I asked her to have our colleagues check the facts immediately.

I then checked Facebook; whenever there is big news, you can be sure Cambodians will share and post about it on Facebook. My heart went numb as I saw all the posts about his killing – the scene where he was shot, and the crowd where people eagerly gathered to see what had happened. I was speechless. I felt like my heart was breaking into pieces. I could not believe what my colleague had told me, and what Facebook was now telling me, with the screen full of posts about Kem Ley — the man who used to serve as our board member, and who never turned his back on us if we needed his advice, even after leaving our board.

In that moment of silence, many questions came to my mind. How would his wife and children, who I met and interacted with, handle the news? How would we, civil society advocates and the public, feel after his killing? This was a shocking moment for many of us who believed that Cambodia was moving away from politically-motivated killings and violence, and that our main concern now was legal and judicial harassment of human rights defenders.

Between 2012 to 2014, Kem Ley was a board member at CCHR. After that, he moved on to continue his social work in the provinces, he often returned as a guest on our radio show. Nobody could speak to the hearts of the people quite like him. He was unique.

Kem Ley is most commonly described as a political analyst. Though accurate, this description feels insufficient to capture the work he did, the people he engaged, the bravery he showed, and the message he sent to Cambodians everywhere. Kem Ley was unshaking in his commitment to the truth. He did not let fear or bias sway him, and criticized both the main parties at time, when he felt it was merited. In the days leading up to his death, it is said that Kem Ley knew his life was in danger, yet still he spoke out against the corruption and injustice that was continuing to impact the lives of ordinary Cambodians.

Kem Ley made social and political issues something that everybody could be part of, a space in which no voice was devalued. He was a true democrat, and he believed that any political party – ruling or opposition  – only had value and legitimacy if it listened to the ordinary people, connected with them, and amplified their voices.

But Kem Ley had no desire to become a political leader. He wanted to learn as much as to teach, and he soon returned to his work with the communities in whose hands he saw the future of Cambodia. His final project – the ‘100 Nights Campaign’ – was an extensive exploration into the deep-rooted challenges faced by Cambodian society. He toured the country, staying with rural communities and hearing their stories of vulnerability, displacement and the destruction of their livelihoods as a result of economic land concessions granted to corporations. He only reached ‘Night 19’.

Kem Ley also poured much of his time and energy into working with young people. In 2015, he founded the Young Analysts Group (YAG) – a group of students and young intellectuals who he trained in basic research, journalism and analytical skills. Through inspiring young people, Kem Ley hoped to reinvigorate the country’s social consciousness, and see the next generation lead the way in demanding good governance, equality and social justice. Though Kem Ley’s young mentees were shaken by his death, this has not stopped them. Even beyond the grave, Kem Ley continues to inspire.

Aside from his legacy in the public sphere, Kem Ley also left behind a family. His wife, Bou Rachna, and five sons, one of whom was born four months after his death, fled Cambodia a month after his murder. After a difficult period living in Bangkok, they were finally granted asylum by the Australian authorities. Two years after Kem Ley’s murder, they are still waiting for true justice.

On the second anniversary of his death, I remember Kem Ley, and the values he stood for. He was loved because he always told the truth, and in his memory, we long for the same. Rest in peace, rest in power.

The only long lasting security that safeguards us is the heart of our people” – Kem Ley

Thailand’s Invisible Gender Law

By Neang Sinen, Fellowship, DMF Fellowship Article Program 2017


Kath Khangpiboon, co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance, at a conference of the United Nations Development Group-Asia Pacific Human Rights Network in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: Kath Khangpiboon

BANGKOK – Wearing a navy and white dress and with a serene smile on her face, Kath Khangpiboon looks like she is about to go out on a meandering Sunday stroll. But she is someone with a mission and she is determined to carry it out.  A co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance, Kath says that nearly three years after a landmark law on gender equality was passed in this country, members of the local LGBT community still face “a lot of discrimination”, keeping advocates like her as busy as ever.

“Until now they cannot find ways to protect their rights,”says Kath of Thai LGBTs. “This has given rise to high numbers of discrimination and sexual harassment cases because society has always stigmatized the LGBT community.”

That’s not how Thailand likes to portray itself, of course. For outsiders at least, Thailand is LGBT paradise, home of the beautiful ‘ladyboys’. There was even an LGBT Expo scheduled to be held in Bangkok this month, aiming, among other things, “to promote Thailand as the LGBT market centre offering products, services, and activities for LGBT people”. Yet UN Women itself has been moved to note that most of Thailand’s estimated 231,000 transgender women face “discrimination and abuse in all stages of their life”.

Just take Kath’s employment in 2014 as a lecturer by her alma mater, the prestigious Thammasat University. It created a media firestorm that centred on her being a transgender rather than, say, her academic qualifications (she has a master’s degree in social administration). Her termination several months later was as controversial; fired for supposedly having social-media posts “inappropriate” for a Thammasat academic, Kath was refused reinstatement even though she had the full support of the social-administration faculty, to which she had belonged.

Thailand’s Gender Equality Act of 2015 was supposed to help prevent cases like Kath’s, and more. Passed in March 2015 and implemented six months later, the law criminalises discrimination based on gender, including those against someone with a “sexual expression different from that person’s original sex”.

But observers say the law – the first of its kind in Southeast Asia — has had little impact so far, largely because of low public awareness of it. Remarks senior journalist Kornkritch Somjittranuki of the online newspaper Prachatai: “(Very) few people know that this law exists. Even I don’t know what (is) written in the law.”

WannapongYodmuang of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand (RSAT) agrees. “Not many people know about the law,” she says. “There is a lack of awareness among the public, including the LGBTs themselves.”

That, in turn, may be due to the current political situation, says Kornkritch. “I think it’s partly because the law was passed under the military regime so the process of public hearing is very rare,” he says. “I think the military passed this law only to improve its human-rights image among the international community.”


Ms. Lakkana Punwichai, an author and a commentator for Voice TV, during interview about LGBTIQ, media, and Gender Equality Act at Brainwake Organics in Bangkok, Thailand.

At the very least, the military junta, which ousted the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, has not been very encouraging of free speech. To Lakkana Punwichai, author and a commentator for Voice TV, this could also be a contributing factor to the public’s low awareness of the law – as well as of LGBT rights.

“The most important thing in life is freedom,” she says. “People should be allowed to express their feelings, have friendly conversations, to freely ask questions and discuss with one another.”

But with the local media also constantly reining themselves in, discussions fizzle even before they start, and questions often go unanswered. It’s a situation that can only spell trouble for those who should be benefitting from the law, which needs to be not only publicised, but also explained as thoroughly as possible.

For instance, Wannapong says that while the law now provides “better legal protection” for LGBTs, they still find it hard to file a complaint with the Consideration of Unfair Gender Discrimination Committee (CUGDC).

“In order to approach the committee, we need to fulfil very high requirements and go through many levels,” she explains. “We have to convince the people, the community, in order to prove any complaints raised.”

In addition, stifled free speech could mean that any long-held negative stereotypes of LGBTs may have little chance of getting corrected.

Prachatai’s Kornkritch explains the social stigma suffered by Thai LGBTs this way: “There’s still a belief that people are born as LGBT because they had committed bad karma in their previous lives. Therefore they are now reborn as an LGBT to pay for their sins.” (Ninety-five percent of Thais are Buddhists.)

He says, however, that his industry is now doing better when it comes to LGBTs.

“I’ve seen a lot of development on Thai media on this issue,” says Kornkritch. “There are various soap operas that have LGBT main characters now. Some even directly challenge the Buddhist belief about LGBT. I think it’s partly because many influential people in the entertainment media industry are also LGBT.”

Wannapong also says that while Thai media used to portray LGBTs as freaks, criminals, or figures of ridicule, the media these days put them in more positive light, “creating a more open relationship between them and society”.  She says that the change came after the law was passed.

Kornkritch begs to differ on that point, though. “I don’t think that the law plays much role in changing the media landscape,” he says. “I believe that the movements to promote LGBT rights in Thai media had already existed long before the law. So the law is actually the reflection of that social change.”

And yet just last March, Ronnapoom Samakkeekarom, Kath’s colleague at the Transgender Alliance, presented to the press a survey of 72 stories on transgenders from Thai-language media from 2013 to 2016. The stories were done during the annual military-conscription period. Only three of the 72 discussed the challenges faced by the transgender conscripts; majority poked fun at the LGBT recruits.

A more comprehensive study by scholars from Burapha University in Chonburi province meanwhile found that Thai mainstream media tended to use negative stereotypes and coarse – even vulgar — language when writing about LGBTs. Funded by the United Nations Development Programme and released last June, the study covered news reports from six Thai media outlets that ran between July 2014 and June 2015. In large part, the study found that LGBTs were pictured as being “unstable, mentally deranged, or outright dangerous”.

Transgender Alliance’s Kath thus suggests other avenues aside from popular media to raise awareness about LGBT issues. “We have to mainstream gender diversity at the educational level such as high school and universities,” she says. “Such basic knowledge must be entrenched before they enter (the workplace) and participate in social development.”

She also says, “Whilst the law is not yet perfect, it still provides us with a platform to discuss gender equality and diversity beyond the binary constraints of male and female stereotypes. Shedding light on the situation is the first step to the realization and appreciation of gender diversity.”

This article is produced for the 2017 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Developing Media Fellowship Program raising a theme “Gender and Access to Information”. Mr. Neang Sinen is a Project Assistant for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) project at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) based in Phnom Penh.

Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil society (Part Two)

Civil society’s ability to act rests on the realization of three fundamental rights: the right to freedom of association, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. A recent report from CIVICUS found that roughly 85% of the world’s population lives in countries where those rights faced serious challenges in the year 2016.[1] The types of restriction on these fundamental rights vary greatly.

Unfortunately Cambodia is not an exception to the global trend of shrinking civic spaces. On the contrary, it is one of the countries in south-east Asia that is experiencing a severe backlash against human rights. The right to state one’s opinion, to question government decisions, and to defend one’s rights without being threatened have never been fully realized in Cambodia, but over the last 18 months violations of international human rights law and the crackdown on civil society have reached extremely worrying levels. In 2016, a university student was sentenced to 18 months in prison because of a Facebook post on his page that called to start a “color revolution;” activists have been arbitrarily detained for months; opposition politicians are subject to legal harassment; and NGOs are threatened with being suspended or shut down due to allegedly violating “political neutrality.”[2]  Welcome to Cambodia, in the year 2017, where these are only a few examples of the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon percolating in the country. The International Center for Not-for-profit Law (“ICNL”) has assessed Cambodia’s legal environment as ‘not enabling’[3] for civil society, creating additional barriers with complicated registration requirements.

Just like many other countries, Cambodia’s legislature has adopted new, restrictive laws, like the Law on Associations and NGOs (the “LANGO”), that violate the right to association and the ability of civil society to function without fear. Under the LANGO, NGOs and associations are required to be registered. Unregistered NGOs and associations are not allowed to carry out any activities in the country. This constitutes not only a restriction of freedom of association and expression, it also violates international best practices and standards which require that registration should be voluntary. Further, even if organizations are registered under the LANGO, they are still required to either inform or ask permission in advance from local authorities, if they are conducting activities in a province other than where they are registered. Their meetings are often monitored by local authorities and police officers, and there are growing reports of harassment, threats, and even arrests of activists on missions in the provinces.[4]

Another method to silence and immobilize civil society tends to be in the form of judicial harassment. Recent examples of judicial harassment include the arrest of Areng Valley activists objecting to the Areng hydroelectric dam project, and Mother Nature activists who were protesting sand dredging activities in Koh Kong. Probably the most prominent case of detained human rights defenders is the case of the FreeThe5KH detainees, five Cambodian human rights defenders and senior staff members of the Cambodian NGO Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (“ADHOC”), who collectively worked on the case of a woman alleged to have had an extra-marital relationship with a deputy leader of the leading opposition party in Cambodia. All five were detained on charges of bribery of a witness and spent over a year in pre-trial detention, despite a lack of any credible evidence against them, before being released on 29 June 2017. The case of the FreeThe5KH received considerable international attention. In November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled their detention to be ‘arbitrary’ and urged the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) to immediately release the five.[5]

Social media plays an important role as an instrument used by the government to nip public protest against government actions in the bud. The government not only controls the majority of Khmer language media, it also monitors civil society actions online very closely, enabled by the repressive new Telecommunications Law. The law gives the government the power to monitor and prosecute virtual communication that threatens national security.[6] The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) conducted an analysis of the situation of internet freedom and digital rights in Cambodia after the Telecommunications Law came into force. The analysis includes case studies of seven people who have been arrested for their political comments online since August 2015.[7] In addition, the study reveals that “at least 23 individuals have been publicly threatened since August 2015 on the basis of social media comments.”[8] In the digital age, when social media has become one of the most important portals for political and public debates, these measures are used by state agencies as a tool to outlaw their critics.

It has become life-threatening to be a civil society activist in Cambodia. At least seven land activists have been killed since 2010.[9] 2016 saw violent attacks on and arrests of opposition leaders and civil society activists. Prominent political commentator Kem Ley was shot dead at a convenience store on 10 July 2017, which left Cambodian civil society in shock and fear. Oeuth Ang was convicted in March 2017 of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. International and national civil society condemned the lack of transparency in the investigation of Dr. Kem Ley’s death, the sloppiness of the trial proceedings, and the failure to fully investigate the motive, potential accomplices and the circumstances of the shooting.[10] In two separate civil society statements, organizations expressed serious concerns about the adequacy of the criminal process and whether all those involved have been identified and brought to justice.[11] Another case was the attack on Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak at the World Habitat Day in March 2016. The monitoring manager of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (“LICADHO”) tried to peacefully resolve the violent attack of para-police officers on land activist Chan Puthisak and consequently got targeted himself for simply doing his job as a human rights monitor at an otherwise peaceful protest.[12]

Moving forward with combating shrinking civic spaces in Cambodia

The political climate in the run-up to the 2017 and 2018 elections that have been overshadowing all recent political developments for the past months, has been tense. However, it is these difficult times that illustrate the importance of the protection of civil and political rights of all citizens to ensure fair and free elections that reflect the will of the Cambodian people.

There must be better communication across different organizations, sectors and countries. Civil society is highly fragmented in itself due to different organizational goals, approaches and beliefs which often prevent it from effectively working together. It needs to be understood though, that the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon will be the major challenge facing all civil society organisations in the future, no matter what their fundamental beliefs or goals. If there is no push back against harmful regulations that stop CSOs from working, there won’t be room for effective human rights work of any kind. The most important thing to do for all civil society organizations and society itself is to not stop fighting this threatening trend and to develop methods to regain and create new civic spaces. It is of crucial importance to the future of civil society to not give in, to adjust, learn and evolve together. In many restrictive environments CSOs self-censor and refrain from doing work that could potentially make them a target of the authorities. While this is an understandable and sometimes necessary form of self-preservation to protect staff, partners and beneficiaries, it is also a fast-track to the disappearance of civil society. Cambodia’s civil society has always been strident and has not allowed itself to be silenced. There is an urgent need for civil society to find new approaches and measures that will force the Cambodian authorities to loosen their grip around the neck of civil society actors and to turn its focus back to what really counts – the interests of the Cambodian people.

Charis Uster, CCHR International Intern


[1] Civicus (n16)

[2] Niem Chheng, ‘Student gets 18 months for post’, (The Phnom Penh Post, 16 March 2016), Available at:

[3] The International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, ‘Civic Freedom Monitor: Cambodia’, (1 November 2016). Available at:

[4] Morana Krajnovic, ‘Cambodia’s shrinking space for civil society and the role of donors’, (20 January 2016). Available at:

[5] OHCHR, ‘Cambodia: UN experts call for the immediate release of five human rights defenders’, (press release, 25 January 2017). Available at:

[6] LICADHO, ‘Cambodia’s Law on Telecommunications – A Legal Analysis’, (Briefing Paper, March 2016). Available at:

[7] Cambodian Center for Human Rights, ‘Digital Wrongs? An Overview of the Situation of Digital Rights in Cambodia’, (CCHR Briefing Note, February 2016). Available at:

[8] Cambodian Center for Human Rights (n7)

[9] Global Witness, ‘On Dangerous Ground’, (Report, 20 June 2016). Available at:

[10] Joint civil society statement, ‘After Conviction, Civil Society Demands Independent Inquiry into Murder of Kem Ley’, ( 23 March 2017). Available at:

[11] Joint civil society statement (n10) and Amnesty International, ‘Cambodia: Significant Questions Remain After Guilty Verdict in Kem Ley Trial’, (23 March 2017). Available at:

[12] Joint Civil Society Statement, ‘World Habitat Day Marred by Brutal Beatings of Human Rights Defenders’, (10 October, 2016). Available at:

Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil society (Part One)

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the theme of “Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia.” The series will provide analysis and background information about how and why civil society space is being restricted all over the world, including in Cambodia. “Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil societyis the introductory article to the blog series. Part One of the article gives an overview of the global phenomenon of shrinking civic spaces and international civil society, while Part Two offers an assessment of the legal environment and the national context of shrinking spaces for civil society in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Further articles will address various human rights topics that are of relevance in Cambodia’s current political climate and will illustrate how civil society is being threatened. Finally the series will suggest new ways forward on how to regain and create new civic space and to ensure the future of a free Cambodian civil society.

We hope the blog will inform readers and encourage members of civil society to share their experiences and best practices on the prevention of shrinking civic spaces. We are always looking for individuals and writers to contribute to the Sithi Blog and/or to the “shrinking civic spaces” blog series. You can reach us via email at

Contested and under Pressure: Space for Civil Society

Recent crackdowns on civic space across the globe have been severe and continue to violate human rights, in particular the fundamental freedoms of the right to association, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. In Honduras, at least 120 environmental activists have been murdered since 2010.[1] In India, Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) have been denied entry to continue their work.[2] Amnesty reports have claimed there have been disappearances of activists in Egyptian prisons, others being tortured, and thousands of documented arrests during recent opposition protests in Russia.[3] These shocking restrictions of fundamental freedoms increasingly fill up newspapers on a global scale. The space for civil society actors (“CSAs”) who raise their voices against governments, stand up for democratic values and human rights, and protest openly against social injustice, discrimination, land grabbing, environmental degradation in the name of big business and other human rights violations is shrinking drastically all over the world.[4]

Regardless of the nature of the political system or regime, governments in various countries are tightening the grip around the neck of civil society organizations (“CSOs”) and the space for civil society actions. Over the past two years, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that limit the activities of non-governmental and civil society organizations. 96 countries have taken steps to inhibit NGOs from operating at full capacity.[5] Taking measures to control civil society actors is an old, familiar game played by governments that has been anxiously noted and monitored for decades. Shockingly, there now seems to be an increase in the severity and openness with which authorities are attempting to limit people’s rights.

2015 was the deadliest year for environmental activists ever recorded and the trend did not regress in 2016.[6] During this time, Forum-Asia documented 324 violations and abuses against human rights defenders (“HRDs”) in the region and hundreds of human rights activists received threats from government agencies, non-state actors or other individuals.[7]

Civil society and its role in upholding democratic values around the globe

But what does ”civil society” actually mean and why is it so important for individual states and the international community as a whole to have an active and vital civil society?

“Civil Society” is a term that is often carelessly thrown around by the media, government authorities and even civil society itself. To properly discuss civil society, its role in global and national politics and also the shrinking civic space phenomenon, it is necessary to take a closer look at the term “civil society.” Academically speaking, it has proven difficult to develop a standard definition of civil society that applies to all different settings. This is due to the complexity of civil society and the many intersections it has with the economy, the state and institutions like the family or the media.[8] In order to adequately define the meaning of ‘civil society’, important unifying criteria which shed light on this complex term and the variety of forms taken by civil society need to be examined. CSOs are self-organized, independent from state power, and have a non-profit based motivation, for example, the protection of certain norms, values and rights of the people. Civil society is not an equivalent to the more general term ‘society.’ Indeed, a society includes institutions that exceed the definition of civil society.[9] Civil society is also not coextensive with the non-profit sector, but the third sector and civil society may often overlap . It is often said that civil society does not include the economic market and its participants, although some institutions, like for example the media, while essentially based on economic rules, have significant civil society elements and therefore can not be clearly identified as one or the other.[10]

Regardless of differences in detailed definitions, politicians, academics and other experts agree that the work of civil society plays an incredibly important part in shaping the political agenda of the international community as well as the agenda of national governments. CSOs also play an important part in scrutinizing government policy. Civil society has the power to give the public, who may otherwise have been largely or completely excluded, an amplified voice at a global, national and regional level, playing a large role in protecting marginalized groups and individuals subject to discrimination. Without the courage and stamina of civil society organizations around the globe, the world would not be the same. For example, civil society played a significant role in the establishment of the international criminal justice system.[11] CSOs have successfully promoted new environmental agreements, for example the recent Paris Climate Agreement, and have greatly strengthened women’s rights and LGBTIQ rights across the globe, as well as, to give another example, lobbied for important arms control and disarmament measures.[12]

Indeed, the increased global impact of civil society can be considered one of the most significant social developments of modern history. However, even though civil society could chalk up multiple victories – and perhaps even in reaction to the growing influence of civil society groups – in recent years there has been a change in perspective on NGOs that can be noted not only from governments but also from academics and in public opinion. Questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of many organizations have been presented by governments, funders and also citizens.[13] In particular, the question of western hegemony has recently dominated international debates. Critics observe that prevailing conceptions of poverty and development are often shaped by those who have never really experienced their challenges.[14] The voices of those who worry that global civil society is dominated by the ideas and values of relatively rich countries of the global north, purveyed by powerful international NGOs, have become louder over recent years. Many CSOs reacted to those serious accusations by changing their approaches and structures to adopt more local and regional strategies, turning away from international, “top-down” approaches.

Despite different views about the legitimacy of many international NGOs, it is unambiguous that the steady concentration of power in the hands of only state governments, that seemed to be inevitable not so long ago, has been replaced by a system of shared power and shared responsibilities between multiple sectors and actors. At least up until now.

The Role of Governments in the Protection of Civic Space and Human Rights

CIVICUS, an organization which supports and monitors the rights of civil society worldwide, found restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association in 109 countries worldwide in 2016.[15] The question that arises when looking at the current situation for civil society all over the world is: why now? What has changed that governments feel so threatened by civil society that they create such hostile environments?

While approaches and methods vary from country to country, the reasons for state oppression remain broadly the same. First, governments have felt the power of civil society in recent years all around the world: the Arab spring, color revolutions in eastern Europe, and the rise of right wing grass roots groups. Many governments, especially in transitioning and rapidly developing countries, dread the loss of their political power and aim to maintain the status quo, hence they target civil society groups most when these two goals seem to be threatened.[16] Civil society can give or take away legitimacy on policy decisions, which may result in fear from government institutions. Instead of seeing civil society as a valuable resource to provide governments with expertise and a bridge between the government and the people, governments and economic elites have started viewing civil society as a threat that needs to be controlled and even eliminated.

Second, governments cite concerns about the interference of foreign interests in domestic affairs through civil society organizations. The keyword commonly used by governments to justify their restrictive measures is “sovereignty,” arguing that one state does not have the right to interfere with the internal affairs of another state. So once a national protest or a movement develops and starts to become forceful, it is often shut down and delegitimized by being accused of being corrupted by foreign interests, even when evidence to support such claims is scarce. Some laws regulating NGOs cut off the supply of money from international sources for civil society making the work of many NGOs nearly impossible, like for example in Russia or Israel.[17]

The third common reason for shrinking spaces is vigorous counter-terrorism policies. While fighting terrorism is a legitimate goal, the problem is that states continue to disrespect human rights in the name of security. Laws are over-inclusive, and, besides often being counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, are being misused to restrict civil society or unintentionally affect civil society’s space to act. In extreme cases, laws disguised as anti-terror measures may have the underlying purpose of silencing the political opposition and civil society by accusing them of terrorism.

In many countries a lack of awareness of the rights of civil society and their democratic functions contributes to the problem. Criticism of governments and state authorities may be perceived as unpatriotic and a threat to the political order and national security by segments of local populations. This bias is exploited by repressive governments who wish to de-legitimize the work of civil society. As a result, CSOs may be exposed to intimidation and threats within their own communities.[18] In highly polarized societies, this stigmatization can have the effect of prejudicing people with different political or personal views against HRDs.[19]

If civil society organizations are kept from holding government to account, and if NGOs and other CSOs cannot stand up for individuals and marginalized groups, many people will face major threats to their livelihoods and safety, while governments will increasingly be able to act unchecked by independent scrutiny. Part two of this article will show how Cambodian CSAs and citizens are struggling under the pressure of the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon and the particular restrictions they are facing.

Charis Uster, CCHR International Intern


[1] Global Witness, ‘Honduras: The deadliest country in the world for environmental activism in the world’ (Report, 31 January, 2017), Available at:

[2] Samanth Subramanian, ‘India’s war on greenpeace’, (The Guardian, 11 August 2015), Available at:

[3] Al Jazeera, ‘Amnesty: Hundreds abducted, tortured in Egypt’, (13 July 2016), Available at:

[4] Barbara Unmüßig, ‘Civil Society Under Pressure’ (01 January 2016). Available at:

[5] Harriet Sherwood, ‘Human rights groups face global crackdown not seen in a generation’,( The Guardian, 26 August 2016), Available at:

[6] Global Witness, ‘On dangerous ground’, (Report, 20 June 2016), Available at:

[7] John Samuel (n7)

[8] Helmut K. Anheier, ‘Civil society: measurement, evaluation, policy’ (2004).

[9] Helmut K. Anheier (n10)

[10]Lester M. Salamon & Helmut K. Anheier, ‘In search of the non-profit sector. I: The question of definitions.’, (International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 1992)

[11] Kirsty Brimelow et al., ’Shaping the Law: Civil Society Influence at International Criminal Courts’ (25 January 2016). Available at:

[12] Dr. Aisha Ghaus-Pasha, ‘Role of civil society organisations in governance’, (December 2004).

[13] Belinda Goldsmith, ‘Why is trust in NGOs falling?’ ( World Economic Forum, 21 January 2015). Available at:

[14] Hakan Seckinelgin et al. ‘Poverty and Activism: The heart of oral civil society,’ (12 May 2009). Available at:

[15] Civicus, ‘State of Civil Society Report 2016,’ (01 November 2016). Available at:

[16] Siân Herbert, ‘Restricting space for civil society’ (GSDRC, 28 August 2015). Available at:

[17] Anastasia Vladimirova, ‘Russia & Israel Are Cracking Down on Human Rights NGOs’, (Muftah, 15 February, 2016), Available at:

[18] ’ Discussion Paper, Civil society threatened all over the world – For just development, environmental protection, democracy, human rights and peace’, (21 February 2017). Available at:


Human rights defenders in prison: what is life like behind bars?

In the run-up to the 2017-8 elections, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) is narrowing the space for political dissent and suppressing the right to freedom of assembly. Amid the crackdown on fundamental freedoms, CCHR pays a visit to rights advocates who are being held in pre-trial detention on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. How did they get there, and what does it feel like to be held behind bars?

Dressed in black and holding placards above their heads, a group of activists from Boeung Kak Lake march from house to house, reminding residents of the detention of their long-time community leader and advocate, Ms. Tep Vanny. The demonstrators are ordinary Cambodian men and women who were propelled into a land dispute when their land was leased by the government to Chinese company Shukaku Inc. for development. They hold photographs of Tep Vanny and wear t-shirts emblazoned with her face alongside the message: ‘Free the Activist’. Their march is a tribute to a human rights advocate in prison, who can no longer march for the community herself. Ominously, and despite the fact that the protest is peaceful and takes place in their own neighborhood, the demonstrators are trailed by Daun Penh security guards.[1]

The Black Monday protests go back to May 2016, when four officers from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), as well as a former ADHOC official and deputy secretary-general of the NEC, were arrested on charges of bribing a witness. Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Yi Soksan, Mr. Nay Vanda, Ms. Lim Mony and Mr. Ny Chakrya had given advice and legitimate reimbursement of food and transport costs to Ms. Khom Chandaraty, who sought their legal assistance after police named her as one of the people featured in recorded phone conversations with acting leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha.[2]

Protesters from eviction-hit communities such as Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila expanded the ongoing campaigns to demand the release of the four ADHOC staff and one NEC member, dubbed the ‘5KH’. Drawing together disparate social movements, local activists and civil society organizations began to support each other through these demonstrations. Various groups began wearing the color black to demand the release of the five. The color not only showed support for the protesters, it was a mark of the political suppression they faced.

They gathered in central Phnom Penh to demonstrate opposition to the continuing pre-trial detention of the five, often brushing up against the authorities. After the death of political analyst Kem Ley in July, they further expanded the scope of the protest and demanded an independent investigation into the death. But as the activists entered the public debate on the 5KH, they too became targets of judicial harassment.

Black Monday protestors were arrested and detained. Some were forced to sign documents with the promise that they would no longer gather in public wearing black – a measure which has no basis in domestic law. They were told to obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior before launching campaigns.[3] The government warned protesters that their actions were being recorded and they could be targeted by the authorities retroactively.[4] Threatening phone calls and personal visits were made by security forces to prominent activists.[5] All of these actions violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty to which Cambodia is a party.

Dozens of arrests have been made in relation to the Black Monday campaign, and on 16 August 2016 two of its most prominent leaders – Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea – were detained and charged with incitement. Incredibly, when it came to the trial the judge altered the charges against them during the delivery of the verdict and in the end both were convicted for insulting a public official.[6]

In a move that has been seen as a politically motivated response to the prominence of Black Monday protesters, Ms. Tep Vanny was kept in pre-trial detention in relation to previously dormant charges of intentional violence, relating to a 2013 protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, an occasion which ended in a violent crackdown on the demonstrators by security guards and para police that left some with broken bones.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, identified Tep Vanny’s detention as a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Every Cambodian citizen is guaranteed these rights in Cambodia’s Constitution, which is inseparable from international human rights law. “It seems one can’t protest the wrongful treatment of critics of the government without becoming the next target of government mistreatment.”[7]

Now the 5KH have been detained for over 300 days, and Ms. Tep Vanny for over 200. Their charges bear all the hallmarks of being politically motivated. In November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled the detention of the ADHOC 5 ‘arbitrary’, and on 23 February 2017 four of the five were denied bail by the Court of Appeal. On 13 March 2017 the Supreme Court also rejected a challenge by four of the five detainees to the extension of their pre-trial detention;[8] the Supreme Court will hear Ny Chakrya’s challenge to the extension of his detention on 24 March.

Also on 23 Febrary, Tep Vanny was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. In an earlier abortive hearing, which the judge adjourned because he felt ill, the complainant walked into the courtroom late and interrupted Tep Vanny’s cross-examination. When she saw that it was Mr. Hor Hoeun, a Daun Penh security guard, she grew livid. “I am feeling bad when the plaintiff is the person who beat us while we protested for nearly 10 years.”[9]

The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (“CCHR”) conducts regular prison visits to touch base with the detained human rights defenders and assess their needs. At Prey Sar prison the ADHOC 5 and Tep Vanny live with hundreds of prisoners, both those awaiting trial and those who have been convicted of crimes. With overcrowded conditions and everything from toiletries to the water to wash with costing money, Prey Sar is a difficult environment to live in.[10] It’s even harder if you are kept there without having yet been convicted.

Even within the same prison, the detainees do not get many opportunities to speak to one another, and all have a lot to say to our NGO officers. The main concern shared by the human rights defenders was concern for their families. As well as missing family and friends, the detainees feel removed from their domestic situation and worry about the safety and wellbeing of their loved ones. From having to sit behind a barrier when they visit to being unable to look after them when they’re sick, the detainees feel separated from relatives who rely on their care. Some of their children are struggling with their studies or are unwell, which the detainees see as a result of the stress of having a parent in prison. Detainees are particularly worried about their families facing intimidation from the authorities.

The detainees were also concerned about other human rights activists whose freedom of assembly is being suppressed. The recent case of Mr. Am Sam Ath and Mr. Chan Puthisak being summoned to court for questioning about a protest they attended last October, when they were beaten by security guards, was particularly troubling. They worry that such moves may be judicial intimidation, designed to deter other human rights defenders from taking a stand.

Crowded conditions and poor hygiene are a constant battle in prison. Within the time that they have been detained, the human rights defenders have seen prisoner numbers soar, sometimes from 20 people in a cell to as many as 50. The Ministry of Interior’s annual report shows that prison numbers have jumped 20 percent since last year.[11] The detainees report that sleeping at night is particularly hard in packed cells.
Despite being held in detention indefinitely, one detainee in particular gave an emotional statement on the current state of Cambodian society. In an impassioned plea, the detainee stressed that – now more than ever – government officials, civil society members and the Cambodian community as a whole need to come together to create a better future for Cambodia. With the upcoming commune elections looming, the importance of peaceful dialogue and cooperation between all sectors of Cambodian society is integral to preserve and develop the democratic structures Cambodia has in place. The prisoner closed their statement reiterating that a fire for justice still burns brightly inside of them, and that they hope Cambodia will continue to rise and grow throughout this difficult time in its history.

Overall, the human rights defenders are in good spirits. This is a sign of their incredible courage and fortitude in the face of adversity, perhaps strengthened by their conviction that they do not deserve such lengthy imprisonment. One detainee expressed worry that advocacy for their cause will dwindle the longer the case is prolonged and they remain in prison. It is imperative that civil society organizations and Cambodian citizens to show their support for the 5KH and Tep Vanny.

Olivia Dehnavi, CCHR International Intern

To find out more about the #Freethe5KH and #FreeTepVanny campaigns, and to send the detainees a personal message in prison, visit


[1] Phnom Penh Post, “Bystanders Cheer Their Support for Black Monday Marchers” (14 February 2017). Available at:

[2] Phnom Penh Post, “Alleged mistress of Kem Sokha slandered for political gain: experts” (19 April 2016). Available at:

[3] Radio Free Asia, “Cambodian Authorities Arrest Seven ‘Black Monday’ Protesters” (06 June 2016). Available at:

[4] Cambodia Daily, “Government Bites Back as ‘Black Monday’ Returns” (27 September 2016). Available at:

[5] Human Rights Watch, “Cambodia: Drop Case Against Peaceful Activists” (19 August 2016). Available at:

[6] LICADHO, “Tep Vanny Returned to CC2 Prison as Two Activists Convicted” (22 August 2016). Available at:

[7] Brad Adams, “Cambodia: Drop Case Against Peaceful Activists” (19 August 2016). Available at:

[8] Cambodia Daily, “Top Court Upholds Decision to Deny Bail for Adhoc Officials” (14 March 2017). Available at:

[9] Cambodia Daily, “Tep Vanny Trial Adjourned After It Descends Into Chaos” (03 February 2013). Available at:

[10] LICADHO, “Rights at a Price: Life Inside Cambodia’s Prisons” (20 January 2015). Available at:

[11] Phnom Penh Post, “Prison numbers jump 20 percent” (23 February 2017). Available at:

Is this the beginning of the end for digital activism in Cambodia?

In August 2015, minutes before sitting down to take an exam at Phnom Penh’s Khemarak University, 25-year old student, Kong Raya, was arrested and subsequently detained at Prey Sar prison. Two weeks earlier, he had asked on his Facebook page whether anyone would “dare to make a color revolution” with him. Despite claiming the post was intended more as “entertainment” and less as a veritable call to arms, the authorities, in a clear violation of freedom of expression, deemed him guilty of “incitement to commit a felony”. He was subsequently handed an 18-month prison sentence in March this year in the face of widespread indignation across civil society.

States have a moral obligation to protect their citizens and whilst this may sometimes require prosecuting citizens for speech “that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, Kong Raya’s post could hardly be perceived in this way. Unfortunately, his arrest is one of many similar incidents in the past year in which individuals have been punished for expressing themselves online, demonstrating a recent intensification in the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”)’s internet censorship efforts. The RGC has justified such clear human rights violations as necessary in order to prevent a relapse into the anarchism of the Pol Pot era, as exemplified by the RGC’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee’s recent series of videos on “the excessive use of rights”, which portray people power as inherently violent and guaranteed to bring about the downfall of society.

Due to the internet’s late introduction in Cambodia – internet subscriptions were as low as 320,190 in 2010 but rose to 6,795,908 in 2015 – the internet has, to date, managed to remain a relatively free space for Cambodians to openly express their views. However, since the 2013 election, in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) significantly dented the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (“CPP”) hold on power by successfully embracing the internet as a means of circumventing state censorship of traditional media sources, the RGC has increasingly turned its attention to prosecuting those that publish disagreeable online content.

For years, government censorship of the internet in Cambodia was conducted in a manner that belied any discernible underlying strategy. Websites, such as those of London-based transparency group Global Witness and Cambodian diaspora blog KI-Media, were temporarily blocked for posting content critical of the RGC and numerous initiatives, such as the plan to establish a “Morality Committee” to block websites deemed to be in conflict with national values, were proposed but later either condemned to the rubbish heap or poorly enforced. However, as internet penetration grew, the RGC was compelled to rethink its approach to online censorship in order to protect its position of power. 

In May 2012, the RGC first announced its plan to introduce a Cybercrime Law, which, according to the spokesman for the RGC’s Press Department, was “to prevent any ill-willed people or bad mood people from spreading false information, groundless information that could tend to mislead the public and affect national security or our society”. The latest draft of the proposed law contains a number of worrying provisions and purposefully ambiguous language that has the possibility of lending itself to political manipulation. For example, Article (27), provides for the dissolution of legal entities, including NGOs, if individuals affiliated with the organization perpetrate ambiguously defined “cybercrimes”.

King Norodom Sihamoni promulgated a new Telecommunications Law on 7 December 2015, giving the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (“MPT”) the power to order telecommunications providers to hand over data, systems and equipment and even to transfer control of telecommunication systems to the Ministry if circumstances deemed to threaten national security were to arise. Moreover, Article 97 criminalizes eavesdropping conducted by private individuals but authorizes such forms of surveillance when conducted by the MPT.

In lieu of the recently adopted Telecommunications Law and pending Cybercrime Law, the RGC repeatedly threatened and arrested individuals for posting critical online content, often invoking arguments citing defamation as a criminal offence by way of justification. Hun Sen himself has warned internet users planning on using “bad words” to insult him that it would take the government less than seven hours to find them. Since August 2015, no less than seven people have been arrested and 24 publicly threatened with prosecution for posting online comments, marking a turning point in the government’s previously inconsistent approach to online censorship.

Senator Hong Sok Hour was among the seven arrested since last August. Testament to the RGC’s continued interference in judicial matters, the Senator’s arrest came days after Prime Minister Hun Sen had personally called for his arrest during a speech. In contempt of his parliamentary immunity, Hong Sok Hour was charged with forgery and incitement and detained at Prey Sar prison for posting on Facebook a doctored version of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Border Treaty in August. As his defense team has consistently argued, there was no evidence that Hong Sok Hour was even aware of the erroneous details contained in his post and posting a fake treaty on Facebook does not in itself constitute a crime. Thus, Hun Sen has effectively “criminalized a statement of historical inaccuracy as a means of cracking down on the political opposition, demonstrating that he has the power to arrest and imprison anybody, anytime”.

Unfortunately, the judicial harassment of individuals that have aired political grievances online threatens to lead to a culture of self-censorship in Cambodia. This amounts to a violation of freedom of expression, which is essential in the fight to preserve all other inalienable human rights by allowing individuals to challenge injustices; to hold government accountable to those it represents and to share and exchange ideas and information freely.

Since the 2013 elections, the RGC has increasingly sought to crackdown on political dissent expressed via the internet. Alongside arming itself with a legal arsenal to arbitrarily prosecute those that politically oppose it, the RGC has continually threatened and arrested individuals that post online criticism of its actions, even when such comments fall well within the boundaries of legitimate expression. The Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the highly controversial 18-month sentencing of Kong Raya in July this year demonstrated that this unwavering opposition to freedom of expression when it threatens the reputation of the RGC is unlikely to change anytime soon. Given the recent spate of high profile defamation cases, exemplified by the ongoing trial of Kem Sokha, this is only likely to intensify as we approach the upcoming national elections in 2018.

The introduction of the internet to Cambodia once offered the Cambodian democratic project a glimmer of hope, offering Cambodians an opportunity to openly share ideas without fear of reprisal. As the RGC presses ahead with its introduction of repressive laws intent on outlawing freedom of expression in the Kingdom, these hopes are now being slowly extinguished. With the traditional media already under the control of the RGC and the staging of large-scale non-violent public protests near impossible, Cambodians risk losing their last remaining arena for open, political debate.

Euan Black, CCHR International Intern




After-Shocks of Turkish Coup Attempt Felt in Cambodia

Although recent domestic focus has been on Kem Ley’s death and funeral, second-order effects of the 15 July coup d’etat attempt in Turkey are being felt in Cambodia, as well.

The Erdogan government’s reaction to the coup attempt has seen more than 13,000 servicemen detained, as well as the dismissal of 5,000 judges and prosecutors. Many of the purge victims have been targeted due to alleged connections to Fethullah Gulen and his Gulen Movement, which the Turkish government alleges to be behind the coup attempt. Its reach now threatens to extend to Cambodia.

On 18 July, Turkish Ambassador Ilhan Khemal Tug requested that the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) close down Zaman schools within Cambodia. The two private institutions, Zaman International School and Zaman University, have been in Phnom Penh for nearly two decades. These schools were founded by a member of the Gulen Movement. Parent company Zaman Co Ltd, however, denies any affiliation with the Gulen Movement beyond a spiritual connection. Chum Sounry, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded that the RGC would seriously consider the Turkish request. As of 2 August, however, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has maintained that its technical mandate does not extend to what it sees as purely a “political matter.”

Meanwhile, a video posted on social media on 17 July by Som Sovanara, a Cambodian resident of Canada, called on soldiers to prepare to move against the RGC. Since then, contradicting claims have emerged regarding Som Sovanara’s identity and military service history.   While Sovanara claims to have served between 2007 and 2010, Lieutenant General Srey Deuk claims he hired Sovanara for less than half a year without a contract.On the other hand, the Defense Ministry has denied finding any trace of Sovanara in its records.

Fear of an impending coup has also been exacerbated by the redeployment of armored units and the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit from border regions to the capital city. Videos showing the convoys appeared on social media around the same time as Som Sovanara’s video. The Defense Ministry claims that the tanks are being moved to Phnom Penh for repairs.

More recently in August, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was even quoted at the Khmer Rouge tribunal when the defense for Nuon Chea drew a parallel between Khmer Rouge attitudes and the rhetoric used in the wake of the Turkish coup attempt.

Some mystery and controversy still surrounds the Turkish coup attempt, with some claiming that Erdogan himself had a hand in it. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, public anxiety, cynicism towards authority, and contradicting reports have put people on edge. Time will tell whether this was merely an odd coincidence of events, a true coup plot, or an elaborate hoax.

Ivan Kanzaki, CCHR International Intern