Authorities in Cambodia arrested outspoken union chief Rong Chhun from his home in Phnom Penh on Friday in connection with a statement he made claiming that the country had ceded land to Vietnam along their shared border, according to officials.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was taken into custody on charges of “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin told RFA’s Khmer Service, confirming an earlier report by government-aligned Fresh News.
Fresh News had quoted Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Kuch Kimlong as saying Rong Chhun had been arrested “for allegedly distorting news on [the] border issue,” adding that he had committed a crime “in flagrante delicto,” or was caught in the act.
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.
However, on Friday, Cambodia’s official Cambodia Border Committee rejected Rong Chhun’s claims, saying his organization had disseminated “fake news” based on “groundless accusations.”
“Rong Chhun colluded with bad actors who claimed their ancestral land was taken by Vietnamese soldiers who ousted them from their farms,” the committee said in the statement.
Kuy Pisey, vice president of the Cambodia Border Committee, told RFA following the release of the statement that the current border demarcation is “based on documentation” and that no farmers have lost land.
She said the government controls around 60 hectares (150 acres) in Ponhea Kraek district that area farmers never controlled and accused the Cambodia Watchdog Council of trying to “confuse people with fake news.”
“What the government has done is not a joke—we are committed to protecting our territory,” she said.
Rong Chhun, who is also the former president of Cambodia’s Teachers’ Association and a former member of the country’s National Election Committee, stood by his July 21 statement in an interview with RFA on Friday.
“I am only a union member—I don’t need to be popular,” he said, adding that the Cambodia Border Committee’s accusations “do not reflect my statement.”
“It is the truth, based on the villagers who said they lost around 500 meters (1,640 feet) of their land to the border … The border committee must be brave enough to accept the truth.”
Not long afterwards, police took Rong Chhun into custody for questioning. He is currently being held at an undisclosed location within Phnom Penh, according to family members.
Soeung Sengkaruna, a spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that he visited the Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters, but learned little of Rong Chhun’s situation.
“We want to find out his condition—is he safe and healthy,” he said, adding that it was too early for him to comment on the charges facing Rong Chhun.
Um Sam An, a former lawmaker from the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who once served a prison term for criticizing the country’s handling of the border issue, told RFA that “the government is shutting up nationalists.”
He claimed that farmers are losing land because Cambodia is demarcating the border based on a treaty from 1985, when Vietnam occupied the country following its ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime six years earlier.
“What Rong Chhun was trying to do was to protect villagers from losing their land,” he said.
“I praise Rong Chhun’s conscience and condemn the government for his arrest.”
Rong Chhun’s arrest follows the discovery by Cambodian authorities of 31 military shelters, housing armed Vietnamese soldiers, in Kandal province’s Koh Thom and Leuk Daek districts, which prompted Cambodia’s embassy in Hanoi to issue a May 13 diplomatic dèmarche, demanding that the structures be taken down.
By the end of May, only three had been removed, according to Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Authorities in Vietnam’s An Giang province had claimed troops were deployed to guard the area against illegal entrants who could potentially cause an outbreak of the coronavirus, but border activists, including Rong Chhun, said the move amounted to an invasion of Cambodian territory.
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.
In June 2015, activists from the CNRP were attacked by Vietnamese villagers when they went to inspect an area in Svay Rieng province where they said a road built by authorities in Vietnam’s Long An province had encroached into Cambodian territory.
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 Joshua Lipes.