Sok Bolima knows she is probably being watched as she walks the streets of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh protesting against her husband’s arrest.
But it won’t stop her.
She has stood outside embassies and court houses every Friday since the arrest, holding signs and chanting for her husband Khim Pheana, who was detained after posting information — including news articles — on Facebook about COVID-19.
He has been accused of treason and incitement by the Government and could face up to 15 to 20 years in jail.
“People follow me. I’m observed every hour and every second of the day,” she told the ABC.
“I say it again and again, I will resist until I die in front of the court.”
Ms Bolima hopes that someone will intervene and help her husband.
“All of my hopes are pinned on the embassies, I can spare no hope for the courts,” she said as she prepared to take her protest to the Australian Embassy and hand in a petition.
“If they want me to go to jail, they can take me.”
Ms Bolima is usually joined by a small group of women, whose husbands have also been arrested in the past few months.
“I am one of 15 wives who must go to protest in front of the court, to make them drop the charges against our husbands,” she told the ABC.
All of the men have been arrested and accused of treason or incitement during the pandemic and are affiliated with an opposition political party — the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) — which has been banned.
Ms Bolima says she has lost everything since her husband’s arrest.
“At this stage, I’ve lost everything — I lost my job, my husband’s in jail,” she said.
“I have nothing left … I lost my property, so now I must fight until I die in front of the court, until my husband is released.
“I will lay down on the ground in front of the court until a solution is found.”
It comes amid concerns of a broader clamp down on free speech in other South-East Asian nations.
Only last week, five Australian journalists who work for the Al Jazeera network were questioned by police and are being investigated by Malaysian police for a documentary that has angered authorities.
People ‘put behind bars’ for sharing concerns on COVID-19
Mu Sochua, who is the vice president of the CNRP, has been speaking out about efforts to curb free speech in the country for years.
In late 2017, the courts forcibly dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its most senior members from political activity for five years.
Since then Ms Sochua has been living in exile aboard.
She fears that the Government is using COVID-19 to silence opposition.
“COVID-19 has been a big setback for democracy all over the world,” she told the ABC.
“Every day you hear of opponents of the government, even simply regular citizens who express their anxiety, or they’re concerned about their health, about COVID-19 and are put behind bars.
“And some of these dissidents are behind bars for years — [it’s] very, very, severe punishment.
“If you’re concerned about how COVID-19 is affecting your life, it’s just because you’re opposition, that means that your opinion can incite public disorder.”
While Cambodia has so far avoided a major outbreak of COVID-19 infections, human rights groups and political activists say any criticism of the Government’s economic response or management of the pandemic is being swiftly stamped out.
They say there have been at least 40 arrests in Cambodia for social media posts in relation to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
That has included the interrogation of a 14-year-old girl by police after she expressed fears about rumours of virus in her local area on a social media chat group.
Others have been charged with spreading so-called fake news or false information, alleged incitement to commit a felony, and for allegedly plotting against the Government.
‘Big Brother’ is watching
Hugo Gabbero from the International Federation for Human Rights has told the ABC the Government does not tolerate any dissent or anything that could be taken as a criticism.
“They have a new system whereby all internet service providers now have to pass civilians through a data management system,” he said.
The ABC contacted Cambodian Government spokesman to comment on a range of questions relating to these issues.
Spokesman Ek Tha did not directly address the ABC’s questions but sent an opinion piece published this week in the Khmer Times, which applauds the efforts of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the coronavirus crisis.
“Everywhere I go, every meeting I attend and every news report I read there is one issue that continues to dominate: PM Hun Sen’s effective leadership during the COVID-19 crisis,” the article said.
“The view is that without the PM’s guidance and instructions, the country would have suffered a much greater, and more severe, impact from the disease.”
The Cambodian Government’s Ministry of Justice Spokesman Chin Malin said the Government does not silence free speech.
“The Government never depress free speech, but only upholds legal action against fake news, defamation and exaggeration of information that affects the public order, safety and security and the rights of other private individuals,” he told the ABC in a message.
“These are not freedom of speech, but a crime according to Cambodian criminal law and government has enough legal ground on this legal action.”
Late last month, police arrested journalist Ros Sokhet from the Khmer Nation newspaper, after a post he made criticising the Prime Minister on social media. He remains in pre-trial detention.
“The gains that were made when we were [a] very vibrant voice of opposition inside Cambodia … all of that has come to an end because of COVID-19,” Ms Sochua said.
“[Because] of the lockdown or social distancing of the laws and the measures on the restrictions and the state of emergency.
“Like in Thailand, like in the Philippines, in these measures where you cannot even speak one voice, you cannot even speak one word and escape the scrutiny over the state.”
Signs of broader free speech crackdown in Asia
Observers are worried these incidents and other recent examples in other Asian nations are a sign of a broader shift to supress free speech.
Earlier this month, United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet raised the alarm about a clampdown on freedom of expression during the pandemic.
She said there were reports in at least 12 Asian countries of arrests for expressing discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media.
That included Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
Last week, five Australian Al Jazeera journalists made headlines after it was revealed they were being investigated by Malaysian police over a documentary that investigated the plight of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia during the pandemic, some of whom have been arrested.
The journalists face potential charges of sedition and defamation, both of which carry possible fines or even jail.
The progressive website Malaysiakini was also in court this week, charged with contempt of court after reader comments posted on its website apparently criticised the court.
“I would say … it would have a chilling effect, because it would affect all host content providers — Facebook, Google, blog runners — who provide facilities for third parties to upload information,” Malysiakini lawyer Surendra Ananth said this week.
“And those people would be implicated by this decision, whatever the decision is.”
Rights groups have accused Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government of cracking down on dissent after a period of political turmoil.
“It was a real political mess that created this government,” Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch told the ABC.
“And this government recognises that Malaysians are suffering because of the COVID-19 epidemic and the associated economic damage.
“I think that the Government is unfortunately trying to find outside enemies to try to unify its base.”
The ABC attempted to contact the Malaysian Government for comment via email and phone but was unsuccessful.