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Cambodian land activists arrested for allegedly inciting farmers to hate the rich

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Three Cambodian land rights activists who were arrested for plotting against the government planned to spark a peasant revolution by teaching farmers about class divisions between rich and poor, an official said on Tuesday.

Theng Savoeun, chairman of the Cambodian Farmers’ Community Coalition, and his colleagues Nhel Pheap and Than Hach were charged in a court in the country’s northeast on Monday with conspiracy against the state and incitement to commit a crime, said Am Sam Ath of local rights. Licadho group.

He said conspiring against the government is punishable by five to ten years in prison, while incitement to commit a crime is punishable by six months to two years. He described the accusations as sending “an intimidating message” to civil society groups.

The three suspects were not available for comment and their lawyers could not be immediately reached.

However, a statement on Theng Savoeun’s Facebook page said, “In this life, we have tasted all kinds of flavors, but we remain firmly strong because our daily work is not what they accused us of, rather we work on basic humanitarian tasks, helping the victims, helping the farmers, helping the community, making them understand their rights and obligations, and helping them find a solution.”

The arrests in Ratanakiri province came as Cambodia prepares for general elections in July that are sure to return Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, who has ruled the country for 38 years with little tolerance, to power. for dissent. The opposition Candlelight Party, the only group to pose a credible challenge to the ruling party, has not been cleared by the National Election Commission to challenge the polls and is awaiting a decision this week on its appeal of that decision.

The three activists were arrested on May 17 after they held a workshop in Ratanakiri province on land rights and other issues affecting farmers. Police arrested 17 of the 39 workshop participants but released all but three, who were charged and remanded in custody on Monday.

Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said the three men were arrested because their activities violated the law and were outside the main objectives of their organization, which he said were d to teach farmers more productive agricultural techniques.

He said the workshop instead discussed political issues such as the divide between rich and poor and how to make farmers hate the rich.

“Their lecture was to teach about the peasant revolution, about the class division in society.” said Khieu Sopheak. He said such language reflected the ideology taught by the communist Khmer Rouge to poor farmers, especially in Ratanakiri province, at the start of their revolutionary struggle before seizing power in April 1975.

The brutal Khmer Rouge regime, overthrown in 1979, is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from starvation, disease and murder.

Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970 as they fought against a pro-American government, but defected from the group in 1977 and allied himself with a resistance movement backed by neighboring Vietnam.

Land grabbing by wealthy and influential people has been a major problem for many years in Cambodia. Land ownership was abolished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and land titles were lost, making property a freedom for all when the communist group lost power. Under Hun Sen’s government, much of the land that had been resettled was declared state land and sold or leased to wealthy investors, many of whom critics say were friends of the ruling party. Security forces were employed to help evict tenants from these areas.

Khieu Sopheak said the three land activists admitted to their crimes during police interrogations and authorities found evidence of their activities on a computer and in documents from the group’s training workshop.

Farmers from other provinces who support the three activists have defied official harassment to travel to Phnom Penh to stage protests outside the Interior Ministry to demand their release.

Rights defender Am Sam Ath has expressed concern that the three men are being charged with such seriousness for working for the benefit of farmers and their communities. He said it might be harder to help farmers in the future.


Peck reported from Bangkok.

ABC News

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