Aun Pheap would almost certainly not have lived to become one of Cambodia’s most respected reporters had a cow he was tasked with looking after in 1977, during the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, gone in another direction.
“Angkar gave me a job to look after a pair of cows in Battambang province during the Pol Pot regime,” Pheap recalls. ‘Angkar’ is the term the Khmer Rouge used to refer to the leadership of its ultra-Communist armed political party.
“But one day, one of the cows went missing.”
Trudging back to his youth unit in the early afternoon, Pheap told the Khmer Rouge officer in charge that he’d lost one of the cows. The war-hardened cadre was unequivocal about the consequences if Pheap failed to locate the animal before sunset.
“If the cow doesn’t come back,” the officer told Pheap, “I will kill you with the back of an axe.”
The threat was real. Another boy from Pheap’s unit had recently met his end for a similar infraction.
Pheap spent the rest of the afternoon frantically searching nearby fields. Then, just as the sun was setting beneath the skyline, the cow ran back into the village.
“That was very lucky for me,” Pheap says. “I should have been killed during the Pol Pot regime, but God helped me survive.”
40 years later…
Fast forward four decades to 2017 and Pheap, 54—now an award winning journalist—was having problems of a very different kind. He was facing charges alongside Zsombor Peter, his Canadian colleague at The Cambodia Daily, over a trip they’d made to Ratanakiri province, a region on the Vietnamese border known for rampant illegal logging in recent decades.
The pair were reporting a routine story about the upcoming local elections. The commune in question, Pate, was the only one out of 50 in Ratanakiri that had been won by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in the previous 2012 local elections—the rest had gone to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Later that year, Rainsy formed the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) through a merger with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party, and the newly emboldened opposition came within just seven seats of a shock victory in the 2013 general election.
Seemingly innocuous questioning about how people planned to vote resulted in a former opposition commune chief and two others filing a complaint accusing the pair of “incitement to commit a felony” and asking questions about politics while interviewing residents. There is nothing in Cambodia’s election laws nor a set of media guidelines issued by the National Election Committee prohibiting this.
A provincial prosecutor filed criminal charges against Pheap and Peter and accused them of “inciting violence”
Pheap is adamant that the case was a politically motivated attempt to silence him due to his reporting on illegal logging, a sensitive issue in the country.
“It’s not because of the reporting on the commune election but because of reporting on illegal logging,” Pheap insists. “We always mention names of the provincial authorities who are involved in the crime. It means they never stopped the crime and they also gave protection for the loggers and timber traders, that’s why they were angry.”
A provincial prosecutor filed criminal charges against Pheap and Peter in August 2017 for their election-related reporting and accused them of “inciting violence”. The pair were only became aware of the charges in October, a month after the Daily was shut down by the government over a disputed tax bill.
The case came at a time when Cambodia’s independent media landscape was being decimated by the country’s courts—long seen as an arm of the ruling party. The crackdown was largely seen as an effort to silence critical voices in the run-up to the 2018 national election, which resulted in the CPP sweeping all 125 National Assembly seats after the CNRP was outlawed and its leader, Kem Sokha, jailed on widely discredited accusations that he was planning a US-backed revolution.
Both Peter and Pheap fled the country soon after learning of their charges. Peter found a new job in the region, while Pheap sought refugee status in neighbouring Thailand—away from his family, friends and the job he loved.
A journalist’s story
Pheap’s journey from narrowly avoiding being murdered as a child during the Khmer Rouge to one of the country’s foremost reporters is a remarkable one.
Amid the chaos as the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Pol Pot regime in early 1979, Pheap managed to sneak rice and prahok—a fermented fish paste—away from local Khmer Rouge and started making his way back to Phnom Penh. Emaciated and exhausted from years of forced labour with little more than watery porridge to eat, the 300km trek from Battambang to the capital took months. Most nights were spent sleeping on the side of the road; on other nights, he’d take cover in the jungle.
He was eventually reunited with his mother, discovering that his father had starved to death while his two older brothers and a sister had been killed. Like millions of other Cambodians, he spent the following years attempting to rebuild his shattered life under the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Many of those placed in power, including Hun Sen, were former Khmer Rouge commanders.
In 1987, after eight years tending to cows in the countryside with his mother and getting a belated high school education, he landed a job at Pracheachun, a government newspaper overseen by Vietnamese officials that peddled pro-government propaganda. He covered fairly mundane stories about the economy and state-run factories.
By the 1990s, after the Vietnamese had withdrawn from Cambodia, Pheap began bagging jobs across the country’s burgeoning media landscape. Over the next two decades he worked at a long list of organisations, including the National Radio of Cambodia, The Phnom Penh Post and the now defunct Southeast Asia Weekly, where he was managing editor. In 2001, he enrolled at Phnom Penh University and got a degree in Media and Communications.
While Pheap had become a respected and diligent reporter, it was upon returning to The Cambodia Daily in 2011 (he’d briefly worked at the newly founded newspaper in 1993) that he started making a name for himself through his coverage of illegal logging.
“We would get some information on forest activities, especially from the local people who know the real situation on illegal logging”
“I liked the real situation. Since the beginning it was easy to find the sources… and we would get some information on forest activities, especially from the local people who know the real situation on illegal logging,” Pheap says.
But there are few beats in Cambodia as dangerous as illegal logging. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with most of the trees falling victim to ruthless tycoons, corrupt officials, or violent bandits.
In 2012, two of Pheap’s colleagues were travelling with forestry activist Chut Wutty when he was fatally shot by military police in Koh Kong province during an altercation after he was spotted taking photos of suspected illegal logging activity. In the same year, Hang Serei Oudom, a reporter with Vorakchun Khmer Daily, was found dead inside an abandoned vehicle in Ratanakiri. His final article had implicated the son of a military commander in the alleged smuggling of logs in military vehicles and the extortion of other illegal loggers in the country.
This dangerous reality wasn’t lost on Pheap, who had his fair share of precarious situations while covering illegal logging. He recalls one time where he and Peter came across a large stash of luxury wood at a military base in 2016 that led to the pair being chased by around 30 soldiers.
“We tried to leave the military base because it is next to the forest so we were scared. If they killed and buried us in the forest, no one would know we had been killed. That’s why we ran out of the military base and those soldiers, some ran behind and some drove motorbikes, tried and stop us but we did not stop. We were just running,” he recalls.
A commander then pulled up, Pheap says, and ordered them not to leave the area. However, after admitting they were journalists from The Cambodia Daily, the commander eventually allowed them to go.
Another story Pheap followed aggressively was that of illegal cockfighting rings run by Hun San, the brother of Prime Minister Hun Sen. In 2016, after Pheap had already ignored demands to stop reporting on the illegal racket, the premier’s brother issued him a veiled threat on the phone, which Pheap included in a story.
“Journalists should not do bad things, and they should know who I am before publishing,” San had said, while denying he was running the ring.
“I am not warning you, but I just want to tell you that in order to live a full life, you should do good things and should not make people hate you,” he’d added.
“When I spoke to Hun San by telephone and he threatened me by saying ‘to be a journalist you should not make people angry’, this one made me scared,” Pheap recalls.
Colin Meyn, who was editor-in-chief at The Cambodia Daily between 2014 and 2017, said it was likely Pheap’s relentless pursuit of powerful officials that ruffled feathers in high places.
“I imagine it was Pheap’s constant questions that drove officials mad. Powerful men who aren’t questioned being asked to explain corruption and impunity. Then asked again the next day, and so on,” said Meyn, who is now news editor at VTDigger in Vermont.
“I sat next to Pheap and heard how angry it made military and police brass. He would let them yell, ask the next question, and then laugh when the conversation was finished. I guess that was Pheap’s armour against the threats and verbal abuse.”
While it was difficult to say definitively whether the “incitement” case was as a result of Pheap and Peter’s reporting on illegal logging, Meyn said, reporters like Pheap are not welcome under Hun Sen’s regime in 2018.
“What is certain is that Pheap symbolised the type of journalism—and journalist—that the Cambodian government have tried to get out of the country in the past couple years,” he said.
“I have no hope they will keep independent news in Cambodia”
Despite being just a 45-minute flight from his home city, Bangkok was a world away for Pheap. Away from his family, he spent most days cooped up in a small apartment. He occasionally ventured out to get food—far spicier than the Khmer dishes his wife would cook—and sometimes met former colleagues for trips to the mall.
“When I arrived in Bangkok it made me sad. I stayed separately from my family, from my wife and my children. So sometimes I was crying when I talked on the phone to my wife and my children,” he says, fighting back tears.
“I miss my home, I miss my country and especially it makes me disappointed for the loss of my job, I believed for almost 30 years in my job”
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) granted Pheap refugee status in January 2018. In March, he flew to the US, where he remains after attending a journalism workshop.
He has since been in Washington waiting for his asylum application to be processed. Cashflow is a problem as he cannot work and he spends most days waiting for news. He is still separated from his family, whose current whereabouts he requested not be disclosed.
Pheap now hopes to build a life for himself and his family in the US, believing it too dangerous to return to his beloved homeland.
“I miss my home, I miss my country and especially it makes me disappointed for the loss of my job, I believed for almost 30 years in my job. Now I have lost my job and I stay separately from my family,” he says.
“I have no hope that they will keep independent news in Cambodia anymore.”
George Wright was an associate editor at The Cambodia Daily for four years until it was shuttered amid a crackdown on independent media.