In the latest development in a long season of repression in Cambodia, a court has convicted two rappers of incitement for writing lyrics that referenced social justice and the loss of territory to Vietnam. In a hearing on December 22, a court in Siem Reap found Kea Sokun and Long Putheara guilty of incitement to commit a felony under Article 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code.
Sokun, 23, was sentenced to a year and a half in prison, of which six months has been suspended. Putheara, 18, was sentenced to five months in prison, of which he must serve three months and 11 days, but having already served that time in prison, he was released on December 22. According to the local human rights group Licadho, Kea Sokun was given a harsher sentence because he refused to express remorse for his actions, whereas Putheara apologized to the court.
The two young men were arrested in September after the Ministry of Culture brought complaints over lyrics in popular rap songs that were critical of the government’s response to social issues such as the economy and the sensitive question of the Cambodian border.
In particular, the authorities homed in on the lyrics of two rap songs by Sokun – “Khmer Land” and “Sad Race” – which have over 2.2 million and 700,000 views respectively on YouTube. The songs assail Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government for leading Cambodia into an economic decline, and urge people to stand up against oppression and corruption.
The lyrics also accuse the government of ceding territory to Vietnam, a potent trope in Cambodian nationalism. This has long been a “red line” issue for Hun Sen, given that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was installed in power by Vietnam after its overthrow of the murderous Khmer Rouge government in January 1979, and has retained close links with Vietnam’s governing communist party. Putheara’s lyrics reportedly referenced similar themes.
For years, Hun Sen’s opponents have accused him of being a stooge of Vietnam. Longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy, currently living in exile in Paris, has long harped on Hanoi’s hold over Hun Sen, although in recent years he has pivoted to criticisms of China’s expanding economic presence in Cambodia.
The convictions of the two rappers are just the last in a wave arrests of activists and opponents that has intensified since the July arrest of the prominent unionist Rong Chhun, who has also accused the government of ceding land to Vietnam. According to the local human rights group Licadho, 19 people were arrested between then and September, including local opposition officials, student and environmental activists, and a Buddhist monk. (Licadho has compiled a useful list of the cases here.)
Also on December 22, a provincial court in the riverside town of Kampong Chhang sentenced Sok Oudom, the owner of a local radio station, to 20 months in prison (again for “incitement”) after he reported on a land dispute in the province.
The recent crackdown represents an intensification of tightening of the political space that dates back to 2017. That year saw the banning of the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha on ginned-up charges of treason.
The abolition of the CNRP, which made significant gains at elections in 2013, left the CPP free to run virtually unopposed at elections in 2018. As a result, the party was able to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Despite (or because of) mounting pressure from Western governments, it has since set about eliminating those few sources of opposition that remain.
Am Sam Ath, a Licadho monitor, correctly described the verdict as a way of intimidating young Cambodians, who constitute a strong base of support for the now-disbanded CNRP. “This case is aimed at intimidating young people who have talent and contribute to society,” he told Radio Free Asia.
In addition, the Cambodian government is readying 130 opposition supporters and other dissidents for trial early next year on a range of bogus and inflated charges, including treason. The defendants, many of whom are currently living in exile, will appear in court in two batches on January 14 and March 4.
These latest convictions exemplify the increasingly paranoid and indiscriminate attitude of the CPP government as it seeks to secure its hold on power. While past periods of repression have usually waned once Hun Sen and his government have felt themselves secure, this current winter looks set to drag on for some time to come.