Cambodian government critic Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in jail on charges of inciting a "secessionist" movement. Many are calling it a government warning against protests.
Despite the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison, prominent government critic and independent radio station owner Mam Sonando says Cambodians must continue to fight for basic rights and not let the harsh sentence handed to him by the government muzzle freedom of expression.
"He says that we need to push to the front and not go back," said Pannary Houn, a fellow member of Mam Sonando's Association of Democrats and long-time friend of the journalist. She had visited him in jail the morning after his sentencing. "Even with 20 years in prison, he told people to be strong, not weak. We have to keep going."
On Monday, Mam Sonando received the long jail term on charges that he masterminded a secessionist movement in rural Kratie province, charges that many observers say have no basis in fact and that were trumped up as a punishment for the 71-year-old's frequent criticism of the government and its authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mam Sonando, who has had several run-ins before with the government, had reported in June on a petition filed by the International Criminal Court in the Hague by a Cambodian-American group, charging Hun Sen with crimes against humanity due to large-scale evictions of villagers to give land to corporations. Shortly after the activist broadcast the story on his independent Beehive radio station, one of the few which dares to criticize the government, the charges were filed.
"Hun Sen hates to be challenged internationally and he's willing to go all out in defending his strongman image and his ability to rule by fiat," said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "Anything that challenges that, Hun Sen will respond and respond harshly. He has done that in the past and is starting to do that again with the new crackdown."
Facing the music
Mam Sonando was out of the country when charges were filed on June 26, and when the incident that he is said to have incited actually happened. From May 15 - 17, the village of Prama was the center of a violent conflict between residents and the military. Villagers had been protesting what they say is land grabbing by a rubber company with close connections to the Cambodian government elite.
The military was sent in to end the protests and in the process, a 14-year-old girl was shot and killed in her house while seeking refuge from the violence outside. No government investigation of the shooting appears to be taking place, but the government was quick to crack down on villagers, alleging they wanted to create a "state within a state," and saying Mam Sonando was behind it.
"It's completely fabricated," said Ou Virak. "Not a single [piece of] evidence has linked Mam Sonando to any crime."
Despite that, Mam Sonando said he would return to the country from abroad and face his accusers. Friend and colleague Pannary Houn said he wanted to show that he had nothing to hide.
"He said, 'I didn't do anything wrong and this is my country,'" she said.
Mam Sonando has a long history with Cambodia's turbulent political scene. He went to Paris for school in 1964, but then left his native country again in 1975 to escape the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. He stood for parliament in 1988, but lost the election. While he founded Beehive Radio for that campaign, he kept it going after it was over and began addressing controversial topics. That soon got the devout Buddhist in hot water with the authorities, which never seems to have made him keep quiet.
"If they put him the rest of his life in prison, if he can help the country to change, he's happy to do that," she said. "He just wants to see Cambodia have freedom."
The four-day trial, which was accompanied by loud protests outside the courthouse, had the appearance of a legitimate legal proceeding. But Pannary Houn said the decision on the verdict came from one man.
"It's Hun Sen," she said. "If Hun Sen said let him go, he would be let go. If he says 20 years, it's 20; 30 years, he'd get 30."
The sentence received widespread criticism from the international community, including the United States, the European Union, Japan and the United Nations. Human rights groups are calling it a dark day for freedom of expression in Cambodia.
Ou Virak, who said he was shocked by the severity of the sentence despite his being accustomed to unpredictable behavior by the government, worries about the trial's consequences.
"The sentence is creating a far-reaching chilling effect among NGOS and activists and journalists," he said. "You're going to see more self-censorship, more people in fear."
He thinks, in the long run too, this was a bad decision on the part of the government and that it will increase discontent among Cambodians, who feel the justice system is under the control of a small, powerful elite. The number of protests over issues from land grabbing to wages at garment factories has been increasing as citizens feel they have no choice but to take their complaints to the street.
"I think that's what scares Hun Sen the most," said Ou Virak.
Mam Sonando's wife has said she will appeal the decision, and protests are likely to continue over his sentencing. Some hope international pressure will push the government toward leniency, especially as international leaders, including US President Barack Obama, gather in Phnom Penh next month for a large ASEAN summit.
Activist Sau Sun will likely be among protesters there. She leads a group of families demonstrating against forced evictions from their homes in the capital. While the sentencing of Mam Sonando makes her nervous, she said her group will not back down from demanding what it feels are its basic rights.
"We will fight as long as we can," she said. "Then we'll stop, get some money together and our forces, and fight again until we resolve this problem. We can't stop, we just can't stop."