The voice of the Beehive

October 2, 2012

Cambodia’s prime minister, the fearsome ex-Khmer Rouge soldier Hun Sen, ought to be a fairly content man. He has been in charge of the country since 1985, and has brought a degree of stability to Cambodia that is widely appreciated. He is fully in control of the armed forces. His party won 90 out of 123 seats in parliament at the last general election, in 2008. And he has a few quid in the bank.

And yet he sometimes seems awfully thin-skinned.

There isn’t much in the way of opposition to the government in Cambodia. The leader of the opposition lives in Paris, because he faces several years in jail here for the terrible crime of pulling a wooden stake out of the ground. What other parties there are spend more time arguing with each other than presenting a united front, and the media here is generally complaisant.

So you might have thought that all would be well in Hun Sen’s world. Yet it seems it isn’t.

Back in June, an independent radio station called Beehive Radio, listened to by about a dozen people, broadcast a report about a complaint brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing the Cambodian government of crimes against humanity. The following day, Hun Sen called for the arrest of the owner, a gentle soul called Mam Sonando.  After he returned to Cambodia in July from a trip abroad, to answer the charges, Mam Sonando was arrested at his home, in connection with an alleged secession movement in Kratie province.  This had apparently come to light after a raid on a village in Kratie during which a 14-year-old girl was shot dead by the military.

Rights groups say the raid was merely an excuse to evict hundreds of families locked in a land dispute with Russian agro-business company Casotim, part of a pattern of abuses across the country that has seen the government violently evict people from their land so they can sell it to foreign companies. The police recently showed the press some of the weapons that were apparently to be used by the alleged secessionists; which included several spades and some elderly bows and arrows. The so-called secessionists are all farmers.

On Monday, Mam Sonando, who is 71, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, for crimes including insurrection and inciting people to take up arms against the state.

Mam Sonando being hustled off to jail.

Rights groups have repeatedly derided the authorities’ statements of an attempt at secession, and legal experts said no evidence was presented to link Mam Sonando to the alleged secessionist movement or to prove such a movement even exists. Trial monitors condemned the verdict outright. Amnesty International classified Mam Sonando as a prisoner of conscience and described the verdict and sentencing as “absolutely outrageous”.

Local government watchers say that Mam Sonando will probably be allowed leave to appeal, and the verdict will be upheld. However, he will likely be told that if the complaint to the ICC is dropped, he will be released on compassionate grounds. This sounds very plausible.

Sonando issued a brief statement saying that despite the verdict, he was “happy” at heart because he knew he was innocent. There are other people involved in his case who are, perhaps, less than innocent. But I couldn’t say whom.

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