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Activists launch ‘White Sunday’ movement for release of ‘political prisoners’

Cambodian Center for Independent Media Director Pa Nguon Teang (centre) posted a photo of himself dressed in white to launch the ‘White Sunday’ campaign demanding the release of political prisoners. Photo supplied
Cambodian Center for Independent Media Director Pa Nguon Teang (centre) posted a photo of himself dressed in white to launch the ‘White Sunday’ campaign demanding the release of political prisoners. Photo supplied

Activists launch ‘White Sunday’ movement for release of ‘political prisoners’

A trio of former CNRP members and a civil society representative yesterday launched a so-called White Sunday campaign calling for the release of political prisoners, drawing a strong rebuke from an Interior Ministry official who said participation in the campaign could invite further legal action.

In three separate posts, the participants showed themselves dressed in white calling for the release of 24 “political prisoners”, including former CNRP leader Kem Sokha; ex-Khmer National United Party leader Nhek Bun Chhay; two jailed RFA reporters; land activist Tep Vanny; and other CNRP members previously convicted of “insurrection”.

The campaign is similar to the Black Monday protests launched in May 2016 calling for the release of four staffers from rights NGO Adhoc and one election official, who were held in pre-trial detention for over a year in relation to an alleged sex scandal involving Sokha and a hairdresser.

Cambodian Center for Independent Media Director Pa Nguon Teang was one of the first to post about the new campaign, attaching a photo of himself dressed in white to the message: “White Sunday. Release political prisoners in Cambodia”.

Former CNRP members Hing Soksan and Suon Rida also took to Facebook to support the campaign, with the latter asking for others to join in by wearing white every Sunday.

“Join us for White Sunday for the release of Kem Sokha and political prisoners by dressing in white on Sundays,” Sorida wrote on Facebook.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the participating CNRP members had been banned from political activity following the dissolution of the party in November, and, should other NGOs join, officials would check if they were violating their bylaws by endorsing the campaign.

Sopheak took direct aim at Sokha’s daughter and CNRP official Kem Monovithya, saying she would be arrested on arrival in Cambodia, while calling her lobbying of foreign governments since her father’s arrest a treasonous act.

Monovithya has been overseas meeting foreign dignitaries and governments and has called for targeted sanctions on senior government officials responsible for the crackdown on the CNRP. Her father has been in Tbong Khmum prison since September on charges of “treason”, for allegedly receiving support from the United States in planning his political career.

“We will wait for her at Pochentong [Airport] to give her the flowers and then escort her to a five-star hotel. We will keep her at the five-star hotel in the VIP rooms,” Sopheak said sarcastically, referring to her potential imprisonment.

In recent weeks, government officials have been ramping up rhetoric against Monovithya.

“None of these threats is new and certainly will not stop me from advocating for the survival of Cambodia’s democracy that has been completely destroyed by their dictatorial iron fist,” she said yesterday in a message.

Yesterday, Sopheak also threatened to extend the five-year ban on the 118 senior CNRP officials already targeted, and said NGOs would be shuttered if they violated their internal bylaws submitted to the ministry. However, despite repeated amendments to political and electoral laws over the past year, it is unclear what legal mechanism could be used to extend the ban.

As of late last night, all three “White Sunday” posts were from overseas, with none appearing in a search online from Cambodians in the country.

“[We] do not want to do wrong activities against the bylaws that will lead to accusations or questions on our work,” said farmer coalition head Theng Savoeun, adding that he would probably sit out the campaign.

Boeung Kak activist Song Sreyleap said she had not heard about the campaign or its goals, but felt that it was risky. The lake activists were at the forefront of the Black Monday campaign and during one such protest last year, prominent Boeung Kak resident Tep Vanny was arrested and slapped with a slew of other dormant criminal cases.

“We have not received the clear information from the White Sunday campaign. If we do it now, it is very risky,” she said.

Political analyst Meas Nee said Cambodians had the constitutional right to call for the release of political prisoners and that the government should allow the self-exiled opposition members to return without fear of reprisals, referring specifically to Monovithya.

“The appeal is the right of each Cambodian to demand what they want. For me, the government should not react by closing this or that,” he said, referring to civil society groups.

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