Cambodian rapper Kea Sokun was arrested in relation to one of his songs. (Photo: Twitter)
Big protests in Phnom Penh have been rare ever since the main opposition party was banned from competing in the 2018 election, which resulted in the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) winning every seat contested in the National Assembly.
But small demonstrations and online dissent have emerged in recent months with opposition politicians, journalists, environmentalists, trade unionists, lawyers, bloggers and NGO staffers making up a long list of professions targeted for challenging the government.
Now rappers and even a TikTok broadcaster have been added to the list.
Nhel Thearyna, 22, a TikTok user with more than 100,000 followers, was charged with incitement after making a “confession” that a video he produced and published online had claimed the famous temples at Angkor Wat did not belong to Cambodia.
“Everyone loves posting Angkor Wat as if Angkor Wat belongs to Cambodians. In fact, it does not belong to Cambodians, so don’t post it. If you can stop, please stop,” he asks without explanation.
The video, which has since been deleted, was described by Tbong Khmum provincial police chief Pen Rath as immature, thoughtless and a crime in a country that venerates the temples which date back to the 12th century and feature on the nation’s flag.
“It causes chaos in society. There can be many problems if we do not take action,” Pen Rath said. “Firstly, the authorities will receive the blame from the public, and, secondly, other youths and other people could harm or mistreat or beat him.”
Meanwhile, young rapper Kea Sokun, 22, has been charged with incitement, said Yin Srang, a spokesperson for Siem Reap Provincial Court.
His father Phal Kea told Voice of Democracy that Kea Sokun was arrested in relation to his rap song Dey Khmer (Khmer Land), which was posted on YouTube in April and, according to Amnesty International, has since notched up more than 1.3 million views.
“If we run out of land, there is nothing left,” Kea Sokun raps. “Listen to me calmly: Wake up, we are heroes, handcuffed to catch thieves. Destroy the exploiters, put them in jail and lock them up. Take our freedom. Don’t be afraid, do not panic.”
Shortly after his arrest, an unidentified 17-year-old fellow rapper and friend was also arrested after he met Kea Sokun for a coffee. He was about to start his last year of high school.
“We instructed our son not to touch political issues because we cannot talk about it, and when we talk about it they will consider us to be involved with politics,” his father told local media after his arrest.
“We should not do it because if you are in the age of studying and you are detained, you will have no chance to continue to learn.”
Protests in Phnom Penh tend to number in the hundreds as opposed to the tens of thousands that regularly demonstrated across the city in the aftermath of the 2013 election, heralding a crackdown ahead of the next ballot five years later.
Amnesty International says 10 young people including a Buddhist monk and a musician have been arbitrarily detained — among many others — and charged with incitement.
“Cambodian youth are saying loud and clear that they will not be silenced; they will not be intimidated; and that they have had enough,” Amnesty said in a recent statement.
“These daring young activists are standing up for the ideals of justice, equality and human rights. They must be protected and encouraged.”
Other human rights groups have also spoken out. Sam Ath from Licadho has said: “I don’t think anyone should detain him [Kea Sokun] for the song because this is a work of art.”
The detention of online artists came as seven supporters of the now banned Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were handed jail terms of between five and seven years under Article 453 of Cambodia’s Penal Code.
They had posted comments on Facebook supporting a second bid by acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy to return from self-imposed exile in France.
His attempt failed after neighboring countries denied him entry but he now says he will make another attempt at entering without specifying when.
CNRP leader Kem Sokha remains under house arrest in Phnom Penh, where he is also facing treason charges.