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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Wives of 'secessionists' left behind

Wives of 'secessionists' left behind

Kratie Will Baxter
Sreng Pho (L), Sok Kea (back, C) and Phat Phin (back, R) speak to the Post on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Pro Ma village, in Kratie province's Chhlong district. The women’s husbands, Chan Sovann, Touch Rin and Phoin Sroeurn, were arrested in May last year during a bloody eviction and were later convicted on charges related to insurrection. Photograph: Will Baxter/Phnom Penh Post

These are the men without a voice: Chan Sovann, Touch Rin, Phoin Sroeurn. Few will recognise those names, because few will remember that four people are in prison for their involvement in the so-called Kratie secessionist movement.

In October, independent radio station owner Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years for a crime for which no credible evidence has been produced.

The 71-year-old broadcaster, a perennial thorn in the government’s side who had twice before been arrested on charges widely believed to have been trumped up, has been a prisoner of conscience.

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Sonando has the rare power to reach millions of Cambodians. He is a man who could easily use his influence to pursue a political career, a man who dared to share his criticisms of the government with the nation’s vulnerable, powerful electorate.

In other words, Sonando is a man who would have been a prime target to shut down.

Sovann, Rin and Sroeurn are nobodies. But they are serving three years, five years and 10 months, respectively. Five neighbours also arrested after the raid were given suspended sentences in exchange for testimony implicating others. Rin’s wife says he was offered a chance to do the same but “would be happier staying in prison for his whole life than accuse someone he doesn’t know”.

Swept along by forces far outside their purview, the three appear to have been unwitting scapegoats. It is still unclear why they were chosen.

Unlike Bun Ratha — whom the government labelled a “ringleader” — the three made no effort to educate their neighbours about the land law.

They were not members of Sonando’s NGO, the Democrats Alliance. They were not, admit those who know them, particularly engaged.

What they were, were men who planted cassava, sold it, and supported their families with the profits.

Now they are in jail.

“I have no hope,” Sovann’s wife, Sreng Pho, tells a reporter. When Pho speaks about her husband, the fine lines around her eyes deepen and her voice rises to a fevered pitch.

Unable to contain herself, she speaks at a manic pace, edging out competing sounds.

For the families left behind, the arrests have taken a toll.

Nearly everyone who worked on the land deemed to have been grabbed by Bun Ratha’s secessionist movement lost their farms during the May crackdown, but the three wives also lost a big source of income with their husbands’ disappearance.

“My kids work on a neighbour’s farm now, collecting cassava. They make 10,000 riel a day, but it’s not enough to support a family,” Sroeurn’s wife, Phat Phin, says.

The couple have five children ranging in age from two to 16. Sitting in a neighbour’s home, Phin distractedly plays with her young daughters while explaining the situation her oldest children face.

Phin’s 16-year-old works the fields every day. After school, her 12-year-old joins in.

“They both have to work, because we live in difficult conditions,” Phin says.

In order to make ends meet for her small family, Sok Kea moved in with her parents after Rin’s arrest.

“I dare not stay home, because I am afraid [to live alone],” Kea explains. A 10-month-old daughter balances on one knee; a six-year-old perches in front — staring out, unblinking, like her mother.

When a reporter asks if she has enough money, Kea scoffs. “If I had money, I would go and visit my husband,” she replies coolly.

Each woman has visited her husband exactly twice since their arrest. For the most part, they’ve been all but unable to stay in touch due to the cost of bribing a security guard to borrow a phone.

“I plan to visit Sovann soon, because he’s sick. He has a cough and lung problems,” Pho says. She has managed to scrape together 50,000 riel in donations from other villagers for the 10-plus-hour trek from Pro Ma to Prey Sar.

That trip would be the first any have taken in three months. Local NGOs paid for two visits for each of the women, but none have heard any word since November.

“I know my husband is working in prison, planting morning glory and making furniture,” Phin says. “That is all I know right now.”

Sovann and Rin have appeals pending but Sreour hasn’t bothered, because the appeal process would likely take longer than the sentence.

Hopes for a royal pardon linger, although lawyers have tried to dampen expectations.

“I’d like to ask for a royal pardon for him, because it’s difficult living without my husband,” Kea says at one point. “I asked my lawyer, but he says he doesn’t know now [whether he’d be eligible].”

Here are the stated (though flexible) qualifications for a royal pardon: serve two-thirds of the sentence, have bad health, demonstrate good behaviour.

Would these men be eligible? They helped create a state within a state. They gathered hundreds of families, dividing land among them, and stoked a violent separatist movement.

When 200 armed police, military police and soldiers stormed into Pro Ma village on May 16, 2012, to quash the rebellion, these three men incited villagers to raise their axes and hoes and retaliate.

When a helicopter spun a violent blade overhead and security forces opened fire, killing a 14-year-old girl in the process, it was in reaction to the violence sparked by Sovann, Rin and Sroeurn, among others.

That, anyway, is the government explanation. Forget that none knew one another before the case occurred. Forget that they had barely seen Bun Ratha, and had never heard of Mam Sonando.

For these three men, forget that their only apparent desire was to ensure some sort of security for the small parcels of land they had farmed for eight, seven and six years respectively.

Nine months after an incident villagers call a violent eviction, the wives say none of it adds up.

“My husband wasn’t involved in the association. He wasn’t political. Sometimes I went to Bun Ratha’s meetings, but just as a normal citizen,” says Pho.

“In any event, Bun Ratha wasn’t guilty of anything either. All he did was help villagers get their land from the company. He succeeded. And then they took it back.”

For hours, Pho, Kea and Phin talk about the “grave injustice” until they have run dry.

When the women finish, six-year-old Rin Chanthy runs after a departing reporter to add something.

“I know my dad’s in prison. I want to go and see him there,” she says, her voice as resigned as her mother’s. “I miss him so much.”

To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com

Abby Seiff at abby.seiff@phnompenhpost.com

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