Activists and human rights campaigners in Cambodia have had a lot to celebrate in the past two weeks.
First came the surprise pardon last week of Tep Vanny, an award-winning land rights defender who was set free after spending two years in prison on charges that many say were politically motivated. Then, it was announced last week on Tuesday that two Radio Free Asia reporters in prison awaiting trial since their arrest in November would be released on bail.
Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, the RFA journalists, had been charged with “espionage” and “producing pornography”, allegations that many Cambodia observers have dismissed as bogus.
The case against Vanny, activists argue, was equally trumped up.
Her royal pardon, which had been requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen, forgave two sentences of “intentional violence” and “obstruction of civil servants” that she received in connection with her activism on behalf of her fellow residents of the land surrounding Boeung Kak Lake in the north of the Cambodian capital. That land has been under dispute since it was given to politically connected development firm Shukaku Inc in 2007. Violent evictions and years of protests and arrests have followed.
Now, 14 more political prisoners have joined Vanny in receiving a royal pardon. In a royal decree signed on Monday night, Cambodia’s king officially dropped the charges against the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue party members, including senior official Meach Sovannara who have been imprisoned for more than three years.
While Cambodia human rights advocates welcomed the pardons of Vanny and release of Chhin and Sothearin, they have also been quick to note that these arrests were unjust from the start.
Writing on the RFA journalists’ release, Sopheap Chak, the executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, tweeted last week that “while their release is of course welcomed, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin should not have been arrested in the first place, nor should they have been held in pre-trial detention, for merely doing their work as journalists”.
This “catch and release” pattern is by no means a new strategy for Hun Sen. He has long made use of the jailing and subsequent pardon of political rivals and critics as a way to carefully regulate the pressure – from home and abroad – surrounding his regime.
In August of 2017, for instance, Nhek Bun Chhay, a former general and leader of the Khmer National United Party was arrested over a decade-old drug case following allegations of overtures made to the CNRP. Eight months later, in late April of this year, he was released.
The timing of Bun Chhay’s release, which coincided with increased European scrutiny over the government’s handling of the national elections, and a potential review of trade conditions for Cambodian goods entering Europe’s markets, hinted at the forces at play behind the government’s sudden leniency.
These most recent pardons and releases, of Vanny, the RFA journalists, and the CNRP members follow that same pattern. Coming so quickly on the heels of a national election which many observers decried as a sham, but which gave Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodia People’s Party 100 per cent control over the National Assembly, they telegraph the prime minister’s strategy loud and clear. With the CPP’s place at the top secured, the government no longer sees these critics as a threat.
Although these releases are big news, Cambodian observers are still waiting on a bigger fish. The former leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, who was arrested on September 3 2017 on allegations of “treason”, has been held in a prison close to the border with Vietnam awaiting trial ever since.
Those that follow Cambodian politics suspect that Sokha’s detention acts as a sort of insurance policy for the prime minister and speculate that his release would only be considered if it were necessary offset otherwise insurmountable pressure from the international community.
Sokha’s latest bail hearing was held last week at the Court of Appeals in Phnom Penh. His petition for release was once again denied.