A Cambodian court convicts activists for teaching about class differences, suspends their jail terms
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A court in Cambodia on Monday convicted four land rights activists of plotting to provoke a peasant revolution by teaching farmers about class divisions and gave them five-year suspended prison terms.
The four — Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, and his colleagues Nhel Pheap, Than Hach and Chan Vibol — were arrested and charged in May last year by the Ratanakiri provincial court in northeastern Cambodia.
They were charged with plotting against the state and incitement to commit a felony for allegedly teaching about the class differences between rich and poor.
The arrests took place ahead of last July’s general election that critics said was manipulated to ensure the return to power of the governing Cambodian People’s Party of the then-Prime Minister Hun Sen, who led the country for 38 years with little tolerance for dissent. His son, Hun Manet, took over as prime minister in August.
The four activists had been arrested on May 17 after hosting a workshop in Ratanakiri province about land rights and other issues affecting farmers. The police detained 17 of the workshop’s 39 participants but quickly released all but the four, who were briefly placed in pre-trial detention before being released on bail.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Gen. Khieu Sopheak said at the time that they had been arrested because their activities violated the law and deviated from their group’s main duties, which he said were to teach farmers more productive agricultural techniques.
He said the workshop instead discussed political issues such as the division between rich and poor and how to incite farmers to hate the rich.
“Their lecture was to teach about peasant revolution, about the class divide in society,” Khieu Sopheak said. He said such language mirrored the ideology taught by the communist Khmer Rouge to poor farmers, especially in Ratanakiri province, in the early days of their revolutionary struggle before taking power in April 1975.
The brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which was ousted in 1979, is blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from starvation, illness and killing. Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970 when it was fighting against a pro-American government but defected from the group in 1977 and allied himself with a resistance movement backed by neighbouring Vietnam.
Land grabs by wealthy and influential people have been a major problem for many years in Cambodia. Land ownership was abolished during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and land titles were lost, making ownership a free-for-all when the communist group lost power. Under Hun Sen’s government, much land that had been resettled was declared state land and sold or leased to wealthy investors, many of whom critics said were cronies of the governing party.
Theng Savoeun declared in a post on his Facebook page after the trial that he will appeal the verdict to win justice for himself and his partners, saying that they had been victimised and they had never done anything illegal, instead acting professionally according to the law.
He vowed not to abandon his work with farmers despite his conviction and said he would continue to stand by them to help improve their lot.