Following apology to Hun Sen, farming activist is freed on bail
Supporters say the apology was forced and that Theng Savoeun is a ‘victim of the justice system.’
A farming activist and two of his associates were freed on bail Tuesday after they made a public apology to Prime Minister Hun Sen for seeking to “topple the government.”
The case involving Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, has drawn the attention of rights groups who say it undermines the work of civil society and is part of a “crackdown” on the opposition in Cambodia ahead of the July 23 general election.
On May 17, authorities in Kratie province arrested Savoeun and 16 of his colleagues for “inciting social unrest” and “conspiracy to commit treason.”
The local rights group ADHOC said they were simply advising farmers on their constitutional rights.
The detentions of the activists had prompted some 200 farmers – mostly women – from various provinces to travel to the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh to demand their release, claiming that they had provided assistance and done nothing illegal.
On Tuesday, the Ratanakiri Provincial Court released all three men after they apologized to Hun Sen for seeking to “overthrow the government” in a video later published by pro-government media outlet Fresh News.
"I, Theng Savoeun, would like to acknowledge the kindness of Samdech, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and the court in forgiving the three of us and releasing us on bail so we can rejoin our families after we mistakenly listened to foreigners and opposition party extremists, leading us to gather and incite people to stand up and topple the government," he says in the video, using an honorific term to refer to Hun Sen.
Savoeun’s colleagues Hach and Pheap, as well as his wife and mother, appear in the video praising Hun Sen for the release.
‘Not from the heart’
The Cambodian Farmers' Community Association has vehemently denied allegations that its members were sowing the seeds of revolution, saying it only instructed farmers on agricultural laws and techniques.
The group, which claims to have a membership of around 20,000 people across Cambodia, was founded in 2011 to assist farmers from 10 communities who say their land was encroached on.
Farmers and group officials welcomed the release, but said they believe Savoeun and his colleagues were “forced to confess” and make statements blaming Hun Sen’s political opposition.
"His confession didn’t come from the heart,” said farmer activist Det Hour. “If he committed a crime he would have confessed on Day One of his arrest.”
But Sok Ey San, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, denied that Savoeun was pressured to apologize.
"If the individuals made the confessions, it means they were true," he said.
Another activist named Ma Chetra called Savoeun “a victim of the justice system” in Cambodia, adding that his confession “can’t be regarded as real.”
"He chose to apologize so he can take care of his elderly parents," he said.
The trio’s release comes three days after Hun Sen accused unnamed officials from the opposition Candlelight Party of “wanting to kill” him and “seize power through undemocratic ways” during a meeting with workers in Phnom Penh.
Illegal land grabs by developers or individuals are not uncommon in Cambodia, where officials and bureaucrats can be bribed to provide bogus land titles. Disputes over land are one of the major causes of social disturbances throughout Southeast Asia.
Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.