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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Border treaty sparks backlash, arrests

Border treaty sparks backlash, arrests

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Prime Minister Hun Sen shakes hands with Vietnamese military attachés at Pochentong airport on October 12 as he returns from signing the controversial supplementary border treaty with Vietnam.

H uman rights groups from around the world have expressed deep concern over the recent clampdown on dissent in Cambodia, stemming from a controversial border treaty with Vietnam.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a statement on October 20 calling for the release of two men arrested for criticizing the government's border deal.

Radio journalist Mam Sonando and teachers' union leader Rong Chhun are being held in prison, and arrest warrants have been issued for others who allegedly accused Hun Sen of ceding land to the Vietnamese in the latest border treaty.

"This new crackdown is a further step of the Cambodian government to stifle dissent and to silence peaceful criticism of its policies," said Sidiki Kaba, president of FIDH in the statement.

The FIDH statement said the government's actions violated article 41 of the Cambodian constitution (relating to the dissemination and receiving of information) as well as articles 19 (freedom of expression) and 25 (right to participate in public affairs) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by Cambodia.

Peter Leuprecht, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia, echoed those concerns in a statement released on October 20.

"The arrests and detention of Mam Sanando and Rong Chhun in Prey Sar prison are highly irregular, and illustrate a deeply worrying trend," said the statement, adding that "procedurally the arrests were illegal."

"The criminal proceedings against the other signatories to the 11 October statement [criticizing Hun Sen's border treaty], and against Prince Thomico Sisowath for opinions he has publicly expressed on border issues should also be immediately dropped," said the statement.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the arrests and threats over border issues "the most severe assault on dissent in Cambodia since the aftermath of Hun Sen's coup in 1997."

"Hun Sen needs to accept that in a democracy leaders will be criticized when they make controversial decisions," said Brad Adams, director of HRW Asia.

Hun Sen has warned on several occasions that those who criticize his approval of a controversial draft treaty, which supplements a 1985 Vietnam-Cambodia border treaty, will be arrested and jailed. The treaty was reportedly signed in Hanoi on October 10 during a meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, although it must be passed by the National Assembly and Senate, and signed by the King, before coming into effect.

Details of the supplementary treaty have been kept secret from National Assembly members and the public. However, Voice of America released a copy of the draft treaty on its Web site on October 19, saying they obtained it before Hun Sen left for Vietnam.

The draft treaty focusses on seven contentious locations and includes maps. The VOA copy of the draft was unsigned but reserved space for the signatures of Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Dy Nien

The supplementary treaty states that the two nations hope to settle questions about the border by 2008 and will produce a new map to show the agreed international boundary.

While Hun Sen was in Vietnam overseeing the supplementary treaty negotiations on October 10, King Norodom Sihamoni signed a royal decree on the same day dissolving the Supreme National Council of Border Affairs, which had been established to define state boundaries, but splintered after power struggles between Hun Sen and King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

Hun Sen's approval of the treaty sparked an outcry among some members of civil society and the Khmer diaspora, and an equally swift reaction from the Prime Minister.

On October 11, police arrested Sonando, director of Beehive radio station, at his Kandal province home, on charges of defamation and incitement. The charges related to a September 20 interview Sonando conducted with Sean Pengse, head of the Washington-based Cambodia's Border Committee.

While Pengse made several provocative comments on border issues during the interview, Sonando's role was that of interviewer, even defending Hun Sen at one point.

Sonando was detained at Prey Sar prison.

On October 14, Hun Sen told businesspeople at the Private Sector Forum that he was suing four people for defamation because they signed an October 11 statement as members of the Cambodia Watchdog Council.

The October 11 statement alleged that the supplementary border treaty would give away between 4,000 square kilometers and 6,000 square kilometers of land and 10,000 square kilometers of sea territory, including the islands of Koh Krachak Ses and Koh Tral (now Phu Quoc).

"Cambodia Watchdog Council would like to appeal to the member of parliament, member of Senate and the King, do not sign the complementary border treaty to 1985, it is an illegal treaty," said the Cambodia Watchdog Council statement.

The Phnom Penh municipal court later issued arrest warrants for the signatories: Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association; Man Nath, president of the Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association; Ear Channa, deputy secretary-general of the Student Movement for Democracy; and Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Hok Lundy, chief of the National Police, issued a statement on October 13 that was broadcast on local media, saying the police supported the Prime Minister in his actions against those he said were creating chaos.

"On behalf of the national police across the country, we are determined to sacrifice for national independence and sovereignty and are determined to carry out the Cambodia-Vietnam joint statement signed on October 10 and put it into effect," Lundy wrote in the statement.

Police and legal actions continued against critics of Hun Sen's treaty deal.

Chhun was arrested in Poipet on October 15 as he tried to cross into Thailand and was driven back to Phnom Penh where Judge Kong Seth charged him with defamation.

As police led him through a throng of reporters into the court, Chhun yelled that he had not seen an arrest warrant and told teachers in his union not to be intimidated.

"I would like to appeal to all members, do not be afraid of speaking out because of our arrest and continue to struggle for freedom," said Chhun as he was later pushed into a car and driven to Prey Sar prison.

The other three signatories to the Cambodia Watchdog Council fled the country.

Chea Mony had left for Ireland several days before the warrants were issued, while Channa and Nath had crossed into Thailand by the afternoon of October 15.

In a fiery two-hour speech on October 17, Hun Sen said he would ask Thailand to extradite two of the critics, who he said were being sheltered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Hun Sen also warned foreigners to stay out of the dispute.

"Those who whisper things, regardless of [who] they are, watch it, I may implicate you," he said.

Hun Sen defended his record on territorial integrity, saying it was previous kings who should be blamed for the loss of land once belonging to the Khmer empire.

He denied accusations he was trying to "repress democracy."

The PM said he was considering suing Prince Sisowath Thomico, a cousin of King Sihamoni and personal secretary to King Father Norodom Sihanouk, and warned him not to expect immunity because of his royal blood.

Hun Sen also told the crowd he had spoken with National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sun Chanthol, Kol Pheng, Ung Kantha-Phavi and Prince Sisowath Panara about the possibility of dissolving the monarchy if King Sihamoni refused to sign the supplementary treaty.

"If this time around it is difficult to sign it, we should consider whether we should keep the monarchy or change to a republic with a president instead," said Hun Sen in Kampong Cham on October 17.

An unsigned statement from Thomico was posted on Sihanouk's website which said that on July 7, 1982, Cambodian officials signed off on a map in annex to the Treaty about the Zone of Historical Seas of the People's Republic of Kampuchea and of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam which listed Koh Tral as a Vietnamese island for the first time.

Thomico wrote that at that time, Hun Sen was the Foreign Minister of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. He was elected Prime Minister for the first time on January 14, 1985 and on December 27, 1985, signed the Boundary Delimitation Treaty between the People's Republic of Kampuchea and Socialist Republic, upon which the controversial treaty currently being supplemented is predicated.

Despite initial talk of staying to face charges and staging a hunger strike if imprisoned, Thomico left Cambodia on October 18.

Within hours of Thomico's departure, Hun Sen left for China where he received a warm welcome from Vice-President Zeng Qinghong.

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