Since the imprisonment of 11 activists after whirlwind trials earlier this month, several high-profile NGO workers have felt fear for their own freedom creep into their minds.
“Sometimes [the land activists] say that I will be next arrested,” said Ee Sarom, executive director at urban land-rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut. “More monks are being summonsed to court, [so] we’ll see what happens.”
Sarom is one of a number of local rights workers whose profiles have become very public due to their close work with land evictees.
Such work includes attending protests – where they observe and interact with demonstrators – and speaking out in the media against the governments’ treatment of its people.
With the arrest of the 11 activists, many of them Boeung Kak protesters he has worked closely with, it was natural for high-profile rights workers to wonder whether they could be targeted by the very authorities and justice system they speak out against, Sarom said.
Challenges to his own mettle have come before as a result of his work, he said.
After using the media to campaign for the release of 15 activists in 2012 – including five Boeung Kak women who are now back in prison – Sarom received death threats from masked men waving a gun at him as he travelled home one night.
On a separate occasion, the rights worker was called to the Ministry of Interior to explain why he was “inciting the community and working against national development”, he said.
“We cannot prevent what happens,” Sarom said. “For me, I have to work hard. I want to inspire the Cambodian people … to move forward.”
The recent arrests have also made Chan Soveth, an investigator for rights group Adhoc, pause for thought. But while reflection is one thing, Soveth has no plans to retreat.
“I’m scared the authorities and the court could use their power to accuse us,” he said. “But I will continue speaking out when I see injustices.”
Soveth, one of the most vocal rights workers in the Kingdom, has felt the heat of the courts before. In 2012 and early 2013, authorities spent months pursuing him, accusing him of being an aide to a ringleader of the so-called Kratie secessionist movement. Charges were eventually thrown out.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director for the Housing Rights Task Force, has never been summonsed to court or arrested for his work with Phnom Penh’s land evictees. He has, however, been singled out by the government for speaking publicly against its policies.
His life has also been threatened. In 2012, Phearum said, he received 103 emails from an unknown person threatening his “personal security” and telling him to stop his “crazy job”.
He didn’t. The fear of being arrested – or even killed – is something local rights workers just have to deal with, he said.
“If they think I am bad, I am ready.… We forget about feeling. We already know the situations that we face. If all NGO people stopped doing their work, what would it mean?
“I’m just helping [land dispute victims] understand their rights and the law.”
In that sense, Phearum added, his NGO is actually helping the government do its work.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, has a similar outlook.
“Our criticism does not damage the government – it should help them correct and reform their rules and activities,” he said.
“We’re not scared and we’re not afraid of government officials who threaten us when we call for reform. Our mission is to see Cambodia have functioning democracy and rule of law,” he said.
Long Dimanche, the City Hall spokesman whose office deals with the many land disputes on the capital’s streets, said NGOs had every right to help villagers and voice criticisms of the authorities.
But sometimes, he said, they are simply wrong or are acting only for their own political gain.
“NGOs who accuse us of using the courts to decide whether people have done the wrong thing – that is not right,” he said. “When I see the NGOs following the protesters, I cannot say they are taking any action that supports the opposition . . . but [some] want to be a new opposition party.”