Phnom Penh Post
While embattled independent radio station owner Mam Sonando bides his time in prison, serving out 20 years on an insurrection conviction widely believed to be politically motivated, the ranks of his activist NGO have quietly thinned, with more than 30 key members resigning and joining the ranks of coalition government member Funcinpec, the organisation confirmed yesterday.
The Association of Democrats, a rights advocacy group that was thrust into the spotlight when Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Sonando of using it to stoke a secessionist movement in Kratie province, boasts hundreds of members across the country.
Yesterday, the group’s top officials said 32 of its highest-ranking members resigned last month at the behest of Funcinpec.
“The deputy president, Chea Bamrong, resigned and joined Funcinpec. In total, about 10 per cent left to go join the other party,” said Huon Pannary, secretary-general of the Association of Democrats, adding that most were “high level”.
Din Phannara, Sonando’s wife who serves as a secretary-general, said many of those who resigned came from the group’s powerful permanent committee. Both officials stressed that they were not particularly concerned about the departures.
“He quits; it is his right. We have new members joining; it’s no problem,” said Phannara.
Pannary told the Post she had spoken with Sonando about the resignations and “he says he’s not worried about anything”.
“If you want to help the country fight for freedom, that’s fine. If they don’t, it’s up to them. We can’t stop them,” she said, adding that for many, the real reason they had departed was because they had been promised lucrative salaries should they leave.
That charge was denied by those who left, as well as Funcinpec President Nhek Bun Chhay, who said the members moved over after growing disillusioned by the group’s inability to help secure Sonando’s release as well as the direction it had taken since his imprisonment. In October, the 71-year-old broadcaster – a perennial thorn in the government’s side – was sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined approximately $2,500 on charges of fomenting a so-called secession movement.
“The court convicted Mam Sonando for 20 years, so the association of Democrats cannot do anything more. It is deadlocked,” said Nem Ban, who served as Prey Veng province deputy president.
“We lost confidence in the association after their efforts to help Mam Sonando be free from prison were not successful,” said the former deputy president Bamrong. He insisted the party had not promised money, but admitted that he and two others were appointed as salaried government advisers upon making the switch.
Bun Chhay confirmed that account and said he would be requesting similar appointments for eight other members.
“We will hold an official ceremony to receive the new members soon,” he said, adding that those who were coming from the association numbered in the “thousands”.
Officials used claims of Sonando’s supposed movement as justification for a mass eviction in May of unarmed villagers in Pro Ma village, which resulted in government forces gunning down a 14-year-old girl.
To contact the reporter on this story: Meas Sokchea at firstname.lastname@example.org
With assistance from Abby Seiff