Oun Vansak, a 25-year-old Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) activist, has become the latest government critic to flee the country fearing arrest.
Late last month, Vansak, manager of the I Love Cambodia Hot News II Facebook page, a site that is frequently critical of government policy, received a summons to court for questioning over a charge of “incitement to discriminate”.
The summons singles out no individual post made by Vansak, pointing only to a 2013-16 timeframe during which numerous posts could theoretically qualify under the oft-nebulous charge of incitement.
The activist was meant to appear in Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday, but left the country a day earlier, fearing he would be jailed for expressing his opinions, he told The Post via email yesterday.
“I posted a lot of criticisms of the government, for example their handling of border issues, illegal Vietnamese immigration, and the death of Kem Ley,” Vansak wrote. “If I go to court they will arrest me. I have no faith in the judicial system; the government is using the court to pressure me.”
Vansak, who did not disclose his location, pledged to continue to criticise the government from abroad but said he will not return to Cambodia unless there is a change in government. He also said the charges against him are part of a wider election-season crackdown against the political opposition.
Kol Panha, executive director of election watchdog Comfrel, expressed concern that the election process could be negatively affected if the court is used to silence the opposition.
“We have seen a lot of use of the court system to interrogate or punish critics,” Panha said.
Instead, Panha said the government should foster an open environment in which elections can be held in accordance with the principles of human rights and the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
“When the election is approaching like this, ideas need to be expressed back and forth,” he said. “But there is tight control on freedom of expression, and that is a serious threat.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann agreed that the court should not be used to intimidate critics, and said the government should instead take the critiques of activists like Vansak to heart.
But Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank, said it’s important to look more closely at the case before determining whether Vansak was being persecuted.
“Even if [Vansak] was a vocal critic of the government, that’s not always an indicator of threat,” Virak said, adding that it’s a good thing more commentators are “coming online”.
On Friday, political commentator Kim Sok was arrested on charges of defamation and incitement after appearing at court for questioning.
Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday denied that the government is pressuring critics, but said “abusers” would face legal action.
“[Vansak] cannot force the CPP, which is the winner, to follow the political platform of the losing party,” Eysan said. “It goes against the people’s will.”