Human Rights in Asia-Pacific; Review of 2019 - Cambodia


Human rights defenders, peaceful demonstrators, labour activists and members of the banned opposition party continued to face harassment and intimidation through misuse of the justice system. The continuation of widespread arrests of people suspected of using or selling drugs led to an increase in cases of arbitrary detention and exacerbated overcrowding in prisons. Forced evictions and land expropriation by the military acting on behalf of powerful business elites remained a major problem, and land rights protestors continued to face reprisals. Freedom of peaceful assembly was arbitrarily suppressed, and civil society organizations faced ongoing intimidation.


The crackdown on human rights that began in 2017 primarily targeted independent media, outspoken civil society organizations and the political opposition. The Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 and restrictions were imposed on its former members. Its leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with “conspiracy with a foreign power” in 2017 before being placed under house arrest in 2018. In 2017 and 2018 the authorities shut down independent radio stations; The Cambodia Daily newspaper was forced to close in the face of government threats, and The Phnom Penh Post was sold to government-friendly business interests. The government increasingly targeted independent NGOs and trade unions after the Law on Associations and NGOs (2015) and the Trade Union Law (2016) came into force. In 2019 the European Union (EU) initiated a review and potential revocation of Cambodia’s preferential free-trade status under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade agreement, citing recent restrictions on labour and other human rights.

Freedom of association

The harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest of supporters of the CNRP intensified throughout the year, culminating in a major crackdown related to the potential return to Cambodia of acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy on 9 November.[1] Although the planned return did not materialise, at least 60 former CNRP supporters were jailed and over 100 were subject to politically motivated charges, including “plotting against the state” and “attack,” between mid-August and 9 November. Arrests were typically conducted without due process and in the absence of arrest warrants. All of those imprisoned during this period were later released on bail following an order by Prime Minister Hun Sen, but remained charged at year end.

One former CNRP member, Sam Bopha, was killed in police custody. At least two former CNRP members were beaten with metal bars by unidentified assailants on the streets of Phnom Penh in September.

CNRP President Kem Sokha was released from de facto house arrest on 10 November but remained subject to strict bail conditions, including a ban on political activity and on leaving the country.[2]

Several CNRP supporters fleeing persecution and seeking refuge abroad faced intimidation and harassment in Thailand. CNRP activist Soun Chamroeun was subject to an apparent attempted abduction and attacked with a taser on the streets of Bangkok in December.[3]

Outspoken NGOs were subjected to unlawful surveillance, threats and intimidation by police and local authorities. Routine NGO events such as workshops continued to be shut down despite the revocation of a ministerial regulation that required prior permission for such events.

Freedom of expression

Severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression perpetuated a culture of fear and self-censorship among Cambodia’s few remaining independent journalists and media outlets. Rath Rott Mony, president of a construction workers union, was convicted of “incitement to discriminate” in June and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment based on his role as a translator in a documentary on human trafficking.[4] Former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin remained under judicial supervision and investigation for “supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence” despite the lack of any credible evidence against them.[5] Seven people were arbitrarily arrested in July in relation to the commemoration of the third anniversary of the murder of independent government critic Kem Ley, including youth activists Kong Raiya and Soung Neakpaon, who were charged with “incitement to commit a felony” and later released on bail.[6]

Workers’ rights

The minimum wage was increased by 4.4% to US$190 per month in September. Minor amendments to the Trade Union Law passed by the Constitutional Council in December failed to address undue restrictions on workers’ and union rights contained in the original law. Many trade union leaders continued to face arbitrary criminal charges.[7]

Unlawful killings

Tith Rorn, a former CNRP activist, died in detention in Kampong Cham province in April. He had been arrested three days earlier on a misdemeanour charge dating back to 2010. At the time of his arrest, the statute of limitations had already expired on the charge. His body had injuries consistent with having been beaten, yet no independent inquiry into the death was conducted.

Two years after the murder of prominent activist Kem Ley, an independent investigation was yet to be undertaken and no progress was made in identifying any suspects in his murder.

Detention conditions

Severe overcrowding in prisons continued to violate prisoners’ rights to health. The continuation of a three-year anti-drug campaign led to increasing arrests of people suspected of using and selling drugs and exacerbated the overcrowding crisis, with the prison population doubling between 2017 and 2019. The crackdown disproportionately impacted poor and other at-risk populations. The government’s anti-drug campaign also led to increased overcrowding in drug detention centres and social affairs centres, where cases of torture and other ill-treatment have been long reported. Over-reliance on pre-trial detention and the widespread failure to consider alternatives such as bail in criminal cases led to violations of the right to liberty.

Right to housing and forced evictions

Forced evictions and displacement, including of Indigenous peoples, remained a persistent problem. The human rights impact of forced evictions related to agro-industrial economic land concessions and corruption in land transactions was exacerbated by increased restrictions on independent media and civil society organizations working on access to land. Military troops privately hired by business elites and the holders of economic land concessions harassed and intimidated community members protesting against evictions. In January, 28-year-old Pov Saroth was shot during a violent forced eviction conducted by military and police forces in Preah Sihanouk province and was left with a disability.

International justice

Nuon Chea, the former second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge, died aged 93 in August while appealing his convictions for crimes against humanity and genocide by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Two other former Khmer Rouge officials continued to serve life sentences imposed by the tribunal.

[1] Cambodia: End arbitrary arrests and prosecution of opposition members (ASA 23/1350/2019, 5 November).

[2] Cambodia: Reprieve for Kem Sokha a ‘token gesture’ that should not distract from human rights crisis (news story, 10 November).

[3] Cambodia: Stop harassment of opposition figures in Thailand (ASA 23/1632/2019, 27 December).

[4] Cambodia: Drop trumped-up charges in child sexual exploitation documentary case (news story, 30 May).

[5] Cambodia: Drop bogus “espionage” charges against former Radio Free Asia journalists (news story, 13 November).

[6] Cambodia: Release prisoners of conscience Kong Raiya and Soung Neakpaon (ASA 23/1291/2019, 27 October).

[7] Re: Cambodia’s Law on Trade Unions and Cases Against Union Leaders (joint open letter, 18 December).