PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Three Cambodian land rights activists jailed on conspiracy charges planned to spark a grassroots revolution by educating farmers about the social divide between rich and poor, an official said Tuesday.
Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, and his colleagues Nhel Pheap and Than Hach were charged on Monday by a court in the north-east of the country for plotting against the government and inciting a conspiracy, said local rights activist Am Sam Ath. group Licadho.
He said that conspiring against the government can lead to imprisonment for five to 10 years, while inciting people to commit crimes is six months to two years. He said the charges were sending a “message of intimidation” to groups of people.
The three suspects could not be reached for comment and their lawyers were not immediately available.
However, a statement posted on Theng Savoeun’s Facebook page said, “In this life, we have tasted all kinds of flavors, but we will remain strong because our daily work is not what they accuse us of, but we do important humanitarian work. helping victims, helping farmers, helping the community, understanding their rights and responsibilities, and helping them find a solution.”
The arrests in Ratanakiri district came as Cambodia prepares for a military chief election in July he will return to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has led the country for 38 years with little tolerance for dissent. The opposition Candlelight Party, which is the only opposition party to the ruling party, was barred by the National Election Committee from participating in the elections and is expecting a decision this week on its appeal against the decision.
The three people were arrested on May 17 after holding a meeting in Ratanakiri district about land rights and other issues affecting farmers. Police arrested 17 of the 39 people who took part in the rally but released all but three, who were charged and remanded in custody ahead of their trial on Monday.
The spokesman of the Ministry of Interior Gen. Khieu Sopheak said the three were arrested because their activities violated the law and were outside the main objectives of their organization, which he said was to teach farmers profitable farming methods.
He said instead they discussed political issues such as the divide between the rich and the poor and how to encourage farmers to hate the rich.
“Their story was to teach about the change of ordinary people, about the division of groups in society.” Khieu Sopheak said. He said such language is consistent with the ideology that the Khmer Rouge communist group taught to poor farmers, especially those in Ratanakiri district, in the early days of their revolutionary war before they seized power in April 1975.
The brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which was overthrown in 1979, is said to be responsible for the deaths of nearly 1.7 million Cambodians through starvation, disease and murder.
Hun Sen joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970 as it fought against the American-backed government but left the group in 1977 and joined an opposition group supported by neighboring Vietnam.
Land grabbing by the rich and famous has been a major problem in Cambodia for years. Land ownership was abolished during the Khmer Rouge regime and land titles were lost, making ownership free for all when the communist party lost power. Under Hun Sen’s government, most of the redeveloped land was declared public land and sold or leased to wealthy investors, many of whom critics say are friends of the ruling party. Security forces have been deployed to help evict tenants from such areas.
Khieu Sopheak said the three activists confessed to their crimes when the police questioned them and the authorities found evidence of their activities on the computer and in the documents the group teaches.
Farmers from other provinces who support the three fighters refused to be harassed to go to Phnom Penh to protest in front of the Ministry of Interior for their release.
Human rights activist Am Sam Ath expressed his concern that the three are facing serious charges for working for the benefit of farmers and their communities. He said it could cause farmers to suffer in the future.
Peck reported from Bangkok.