In Cambodia, those detained on controversial charges see themselves as pawns in a repetitive game of political chess. Will the rules stay the same?
Nay Vanda wakes every day for a 6am roll call. The prisoners sharing the 42-year-old’s 4-by-5 metre cell in Prey Sar shout out a number, one to 30. Like most in the prison, the room is overcrowded. The inmates sleep on their sides, wedged together, but even then there is not enough space.
After the count, Vanda joins the line for the single toilet in the corner. In the poorly ventilated cell, the stench of excrement is overpowering. He takes his first breath of fresh air around 8am, when the guards open the cell door for an exercise session.
For more than 20 hours each day, Vanda – the deputy head of Adhoc’s human rights section – is confined to this cell. He passes the hours listening to the radio and reading. In 230 days, he has finished most of the titles in the prison’s library.
At 7:30pm, several inmates gather around Vanda to learn English. For the career human rights worker, the daily lessons provide the only semblance of meaning to more than seven months of incarceration.
Since early 2015, the number of people detained in politically linked cases in Cambodia has risen sharply. Rights group Licadho currently counts Nay Vanda among 26 “political prisoners”, including other human rights workers, lawmakers and activists, a student, a monk and a land-rights campaigner.
The crackdown is widely seen as one of many by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, a plot to weaken rivals ahead of elections. The lock-ups are legitimised through the country’s judiciary – which has been ranked last in the region for corruption and government influence.
Cases are often resolved not by the law, but according to political deals. Such will be the case for Vanda, three Adhoc colleagues and National Election Committee official Ny Chakrya.
In April, the group was ensnared in a seemingly manufactured case involving opposition leader Kem Sokha’s purported affair with a 25-year-old mistress. Allegations of procurement of prostitution were levelled at Sokha and bribery at the others.
This month, Sokha received a royal pardon for ignoring court summonses and walked out of the Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters where he was holed up to avoid arrest. A commune chief was released last week, and the Adhoc five are expected to be freed by the end of the month.
Their release would reinforce the longstanding perception that in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, individuals are pawns: able to be locked up, prosecuted and pardoned according to a political agenda.
If the central target was Sokha, then the others were simply cannon fodder. While the opposition leader stayed in party headquarters for six months, the group has spent a combined 1,155 days in prison.
Vanda’s wife, Pheav Mey, who recounted his daily routine for Post Weekend, says her husband was never a criminal. “He should not have ended up in such a place,” she says.
Today, tuk-tuk driver Roeun Chetra marks his 500th day in prison. The CNRP youth member was one of 15 activists jailed on insurrection charges over a 2014 protest at Freedom Park that turned violent.
Chetra, who is 33 years old, was detained in August last year – hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for more arrests in the case.
When his wife, An Sophea, brings their 2-year-old son to visit him at Prey Sar, the child asks his father why he’s gone away. Chetra tells him that he works there.
Each time she comes to the prison from their home in Kandal province, Sophea carries about $100 worth of food and medicine for her husband, who has developed scabies. “We used to visit once a week, but now it’s less regular. We don’t have enough money,” she says.
The family, like those of many of the prisoners, has fallen on hard times. Chetra, a former monk, was largely a stay-at-home dad. Sophea has reduced her hours at the garment factory to care for their son. She relies on $50 per month in assistance from Licadho and CNRP donations to make ends meet.
Sophea was surprised with her husband’s arrest last year. Though she knew that Chetra was unhappy with the government, she did not know he had attended the protest. When five policemen turned up at his family home, Chetra was initially told that he was wanted over a stolen motorbike.
Then 25 officers turned up. Sophea approached one. “I asked, ‘Why are you arresting him?’” she says. “He said, ‘It is political. No worry’.”
Although the cases against activists and lawmakers have drawn international condemnation – at the US House of Representatives and the United Nations – the game seems to have worked in Cambodia.
Political scientist Astrid Noren Nilsson, who published a book on the Kingdom this year, says that in political terms, the crackdown has been “very successful” at silencing critics and sowing discord among the opposition party.
“It has completed the gradual reversal of a relatively free and open public discourse back to the pre-2013 situation,” she says. “Hun Sen has made it clear that critics can have problems resolved only if they stay quiet.”
For Keo Phirum, a CNRP lawmaker from Kratie, the message has been received.
“The fear is in the back of everyone’s minds,” says Phirum, who was briefly imprisoned in 2014. “Whatever we say, whatever we do, we have to be very, very careful.”
A recurring theme
In Cambodia, the crackdowns seem to come in cycles.
This year, it was the sex scandal. Before that, it was a pair of opposition lawmakers detained in a case related to issues over Cambodia’s border with Vietnam. In 2013, government critic Mam Sonando was jailed for an alleged “secessionist” plot.
Eleven years ago, opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy found himself in a military prison on charges related to alleged plans to start a private army after the opposition appointed him to lead its shadow defence ministry. He remained there for one year.
For Channy, nights were the hardest. He was alone in his cell, which would flood in the rainy season. “I just could not sleep or sit [still],” he recalls. “I felt like a drug addict. I just paced around my cell, wanting to hit something.”
His release came amid a political rapprochement. Prime Minister Hun Sen arranged a pardon for then-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy; Channy’s freedom came attached.
The lawmaker sees a pattern. “Those who are involved in politics, they cannot get out of jail without agreement from Prime Minister Hun Sen – in the past and now,” he says.
It was the deal Channy didn’t take that made him feel most like a pawn.He was usually confined to his cell to eat, but six months into his imprisonment, he says he was invited to dine with the prison chief under a tree behind his personal quarters. He was offered sour soup, fried eggs, rice and a chance to shorten his sentence.
“The warden said, ‘In one week’s time, they’ll try you’. He said the first question would be [if I] prepared a force to overthrow the government. He told to me to say yes. The second question would be, ‘Who was behind it? Was it Sam Rainsy?’”
Channy says that he refused to finish the discussion, took a glass of water and returned to his cell.
“I knew that they would have let me go free if I had said what he suggested,” he says. “But those few words would destroy what we have been struggling for our whole lives.”
Old game, young audience
Earlier this year, two men met in another cell in Prey Sar’s Building A. Kong Raiya, a student leader, had been detained outside Phnom Penh’s Khemarak University in August last year. An idealist – but not a politician – he posted on Facebook calling for a “colour revolution”, a reference to the peaceful movements that have toppled governments in the former Soviet bloc. It was deleted after two days.
The other man, Chhay Sarith, a member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit, was given a suspended sentence for his involvement in the beating of two opposition lawmakers outside of the National Assembly two months later.
Footage shows Sarith alongside at least 16 other men, dragging the pair from their cars and bloodying them in the street.Sarith was released last month. Today, Raiya will wake up in Prey Sar’s Building 6B, facing day 484 of an 18-month sentence for incitement.
Raiya rises between 6am and 8am. Before his arrest, he was constantly on the move, says his sister Kong Linda. Now, when the guards allow, he plays table tennis during exercise breaks. But often, he just runs around the prison yard, occasionally raising his arms above his head.
The CPP’s recent crackdown seems aimed at the electorate, but it is unclear how it will shape results at the ballot box. Many voters in the 2018 national election will be like Raiya: young, and less tolerant of an abusive legal system.
“I agree that people do become densensitised, but then I think about the demographics of Cambodia,” says Ear Sophal, a professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“More than 50 percent are 24 years or younger. They were kids in the 1990s. And now all they see is this, and they probably feel that it’s the worst thing that has happened in Cambodian politics in their lifetime.”
Lao Mong Hay, a longtime political analyst and former adviser to Kem Sokha, thinks that there is a growing sense of resentment with the law being used as a weapon.
“More and more people see this as the game Hun Sen has been playing,” Mong Hay says, mentioning Sokha’s pardon. “There is no legal justification. It is sheer politics.”
For Ieng Thearanh, one of Raiya’s classmates at Khemarak University, the game doesn’t seem to be working.
“I am upset with the court as well as upset with our country,” he says. “But it is not strange, as everyone already knows what the court is and about how much freedom, and the level of democracy, that we have.”
And upon his friend’s release? “We still continue to struggle,” he says.