Franco-Khmer radio journalist Mam Sonando was arrested on Sunday, July 15, and accused of “secessionism” by the Kratie province authorities. He is currently waiting for his trial in Pey Sor Jail, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. According to most local activists, this accusation is a pretext to silence one of the most popular voices in the country.
“Whoever stands up to love the nation and protect the country is always short lived. And it is my turn this time,” Mam Sonando told Voice of America before coming back to Cambodia from his trip to France, Switzerland and the U.S. This realism cost him his freedom four days later, once international attention left the country with Hillary Clinton and ASEAN dignitaries.
Mam Sonando is the owner and director of Beehive radio in Phnom Penh, known to broadcast programs from opposition and civil society organizations. A lot of Cambodian citizens also know his face from trips he takes to the provinces with the Democrat Association to explain their rights to citizens. Although he was out of the country at the time, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for his arrest on June 26, holding him partly responsible for organizing a land grab protest in Kratie province that cost the life of a 14-year-old girl in May.
Soak Am Oeun, Mam Sonando’s lawyer, started to read the accusation dossier on July 19. To him, it is not clear how his client has been linked to the secessionist movement in Kratie province.
“Only two people are blaming Mam Sonando for ordering people from Prama to strike against land grabbing,” he said. “I also read statements of persons who were arrested and charged by the government after the protest in Prama, saying they protested because they listened to Mam Sonando’s words during a meeting at his house.”
But Mam Sonando says that he meets many people every day and doesn’t remember if this was the case.
“I still don’t believe the accusation of secessionism. In an American court, Mam Sonando would be free and the dossier would not prove enough. But in Cambodia, one cannot predict what might happen,” the lawyer concluded.
Ou Virak , the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, is helping Mam Sonando by providing lawyer’s fees. Although he could not visit Mam Sonando in jail yet, he told Asian Correspondent that Sonando was better treated than other prisoners as he is able to buy proper food and has access to drinking water.
“But he is still in the same cell as 17 other persons, which means that he has about a half square meter to sleep in,” said Ou Virak.
Even though the Democrat Association denied any link with Mam Sonando, Ou Virak thinks there is one.
“Mam Sonando was also arrested because of Sourn Serey Ratha and more importantly other community activists who lead protests in land conflicts areas. When Mam Sonando interviewed Bun Ratha, he did something that the government does not tolerate. This has very little to do with the Democrat Association,” he said.
More secessionist charges are being brought against community activists. For example, at least 4 villagers have been arrested in Pursat province since the beginning of the week in connection with what the authorities are calling a secessionnist plot.
The fear of a jasmine revolution ?
In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times on July 18, Mu Sochua, opposition member of the Parliament in Cambodia and Cecilia Wikstrom, a EU Parliament member, state that “it is time the Cambodian government be held accountable for violating its people’s basic rights”.
The arrest of Mam Sonando comes after a number of human rights abuses. In the past three months, the land activist Chut Wutty was killed, thirteen Boeung Kak lake activists were arrested and convicted, Venerable Loun Sovath was arrested and a 14-year-old girl was killed during land evictions.
For Ou Virak, this arrest is due to the government fear of instability since the Arab Spring and Sonando’s arrest is a faux-pas. “Hun Sen cannot stay away from the Arab Spring. Any mention of it is quite sensitive in the country […],” he said. “The government did not want to arrest Mam Sonando until he came back to Cambodia, provoking the government [after telling Voice of America that he did not fear any allegation]. All signs say anyone that rules with almost absolute control of all organs of the state will be bound to make mistakes.”
Moreover, land conflicts are sensitive in Cambodia for they cost the popularity of the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). According to the results of the last commune elections on June 3, the CPP was in difficulty in provinces known for land conflicts, grabbing and border disputes. For example Tek Nim, a 28-year-old woman, won the seat for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in Omlaing commune, embroiled in land conflict with Ly Yong Phat, a CPP senator and tycoon.
One of the latest measures taken by the Prime Minister in this regard is to send volunteers and surveyors to measure land in the whole country. Late last year, a draft law has been released by the government on the Management and Use of Agricultural Land. On Monday, a briefing from the local NGO Licadho stated that it “could be used as legal cover for land-grabbing and for those who wish to exploit and personally profit from Cambodia’s land and resources”.
In this context, Mam Sonando’s arrest was criticized and denounced. It was locally criticized by the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) as well as 14 NGOs, and internationally by the US based NGO Human Rights Watch, the France based NGO Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Swiss-based World Organization Against Torture. On July 18, the Council of Ministers spokesman called for NGOs’ “patience”, reminding that “Mam Sonando is innocent until proven guilty”.
Mam Sonando’s wife was able to visit her husband twice twice last week and met with the French Embassy on Monday, who assured her they would be visiting Mam Sonando before the end of the month.