The night that six Cambodian police officers dragged Prum Chantha’s teenage son out of their home for criticising the government in a group chat, she was so distraught that her neighbours insisted on sleeping on her floor to watch over her.
Her husband was already one of more than 100 activists and politicians charged with alleged treason or incitement against Cambodia’s ruling party. Now Kak Sovannchhay, a 16-year-old with autism whose crime was defending his father on Telegram, would join him in Prey Sar prison.
But within a week, Chantha returned to the ritual she had started a year earlier, walking the streets of Phnom Penh with her petition.
“I can’t be weak. I have to stand up for myself,” says Chantha.
For two years, she has led a group of women – sometimes just a dozen – to picket Phnom Penh’s courts and international embassies, facing arrest and violence as they demand the release of their family members.
Prum Chantha protests with her autistic son Kak Sovannchhay, 16, outside Prey Sar prison, where he was later also imprisoned for posting comments critical of the government. Photograph: Heng Sinith/AP
Chantha’s son, who was arrested in June 2021, came home after five months in prison but her husband is still awaiting his case, one of four mass trials against opposition leaders and supporters that many see as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attempt to stamp out growing dissent to his 37 years of rule. Chantha’s group, a rare voice of defiance in Cambodia, are known as the “Friday wives” for their weekly protests.
“Physically, they’re putting their lives and their bodies on the line,” says Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and activist who is facing her own ongoing court proceedings.
“Here are 20 women with no weapons, holding signs, wearing T-shirts of their loved ones, being assaulted left and right.”
On a sweltering April morning the women wore wide-brimmed hats and white T-shirts bearing photos of their jailed family members as they marched down a busy road to sit on the grass verge outside the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh. On 3 May, the closing arguments are expected at a hearing for about 60 of 130 activists whom the state has been prosecuting since 2020.
The protests follow a familiar arc: they rally in front of the municipal court or royal palace before delivering a petition to one of many embassies.
“We’re looking for democratic countries and signatories,” Chantha says. She has already met embassy officials from the US, Indonesia, the UK and the EU.
Members of the ‘Friday wives’ petitioning for their jailed husbands’ release in front of the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Fiona Kelliher
When they first began, in June 2020, the Friday wives were very nervous, say Ouk Chanthy, a garment worker whose husband is serving a 44-month prison sentence. He was one of 20 people handed sentences of up to 10 years in mid-March. “I didn’t know how advocacy works,” she says. “The first time I joined the protest, I was scared the authorities would threaten me.”
I used to feel scared. They have threatened us, pushed us, pulled us, until all my fear was gone
Police have shoved and kicked the women countless times, threatened them with arrest and have violently removed them from public spaces. They meditate together before each protest and call out constant words of encouragement.
The day her husband was convicted, two guards confronted Chanthy as she held up his photo and dragged her along the ground until her palm bled.
“I used to feel scared,” she says, touching the place where she has a pale scar. “They have threatened us, pushed us, pulled us, until all my fear was gone.”
Mu Sochua, an exiled opposition leader, has watched the women from afar as they grew from a group of strangers to an unflinching mutual support network. Their message has also expanded to broader themes of democracy and freedom of expression.
Mu Sochua, vice-president of the Cambodia National Rescue party, calls for exiled leaders to be able to return to their homeland. Photograph: Achmad Ibrahim/AP
“It’s very clear that they have moved beyond fighting for themselves and their husbands – they have moved toward justice for all,” says Sochua. “Listening to their interviews, I hear that they don’t consider themselves as victims, but as real players, real leaders in bringing change.”
The group bears more than physical scars: members of Chantha’s family have blocked her on Facebook and on mobile phones to avoid being targeted by the authorities by association. Many of the women have struggled to find people who will employ them.
Chantha can afford to visit her husband once a week, squeezing her protests between trekking to the prison, caring for her son and helping her niece sell clothes. But she has no plans to stop.
“It’s unacceptable that families are subject to threats and intimidation,” she says. “The authorities assault us, shoot us, hit us, arrest us and threaten us – yet we cannot even criticise them.”
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