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A Cambodian court on Monday convicted a group of land rights activists of attempting to incite a Khmer Rouge-style revolution by teaching farmers about class divisions, the Associated Press reported.

Four members of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community were arrested in May last year after giving a workshop to a congregation of farmers in the northeast of the country, where they discussed issues including land rights. They allegedly taught the attendants about class divisions between the rich and the poor.

Nearly half of the participants were arrested, but only the four activists faced charges. Now, the court has given them suspended five-year jail terms.

The arrests occurred in the run-up to the July 2023 general election, won in a landslide by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which international observers described as neither free nor fair. After the election, the CPP’s Hun Manet became prime minister, succeeding his father, Hun Sen, an authoritarian who led the country for almost four decades.

Government spokesperson Gen. Khieu Sopheak said the activists were plotting a “peasant revolution” and incited hatred toward the rich, evoking the ideology of the communist Khmer Rouge, whose 1975-1979 rule was marked by the killing of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians.

The Khmer Rouge had outlawed land ownership.

Hun Sen, once part of the Khmer Rouge regime before defecting in 1977, oversaw his party’s and country’s transition from communism to conservatism and state capitalism. His administration sold or leased resettled land to wealthy investors and members of the political elite.

Farmers were the most impacted by the violent land grabs, which have been called a crime against humanity.

By discussing the topics of land rights and class divisions, the Farmer Community activists politicized what should have been a lecture on best agricultural practices and stepped beyond their prerogatives, Khieu said.

The group’s chairman said he would appeal the verdict and carry on his work with farmers.

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