Mon. Dec 6th, 2021

Thailand this month deported three opposition activists recognized as refugees back to Cambodia, even as violence against political dissidents escalated and another activist was killed in Phnom Penh on Sunday.

Thailand deported Veourn Veasna and Voeung Samnang on November 9, and Lanh Thavry on November 20. All three were members of the banned political party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 after a strong performance in that year’s local municipal elections.

The dissolution at the time was widely condemned by rights activists and democratic nations, who saw it as a politically motivated move to prevent the party from threatening Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decades-long grip on power. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party participated virtually unopposed in the 2018 national election, takes all 125 seats in parliament.

Thavry was one of 489 CNRP candidates elected as a mayor in 2017, while Samnang was a deputy mayor and Veasna a CNRP online broadcaster. Thavry was allegedly accused of trying to overthrow the government because he supported CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy’s attempt to return from exile, while Veasna was charged with incitement after he posted a poem on Facebook that Hun Sen branded as a traitor. It was not immediately clear what charges Samnang was facing. A fourth CNRP member, Mich Heang, was arrested on Sunday in Thailand, according to BenarNews, and is staying in a detention center in Bangkok that is also facing possible deportation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) condemned both sets of deportations, saying it had informed Thailand that all three had refugee status, and warned that they were “facing a serious risk of prosecution” in Cambodia.

“This action is contrary to the principle of non-withdrawal, which obliges states – including Thailand – not to expel people or return to an area where their life or liberty would be threatened,” the agency said on Tuesday. said in a statement, adding that it had called for “urgent clarification” from Thailand on the matter.

Hun Sen has garnered all sorts of criticism with even a 16-year-old autistic boy being sent to jail for posting comments critical of the government on Facebook. Kak Sovannchhay, left, was released earlier this month [Heng Sinith/AP Photo]

The worrying rise in deportations comes against a backdrop of escalating violence against opposition activists in Cambodia.

On Sunday, CNRP activist Sin Khon was hacked to death by unknown swordsmen near Wat Chas, a pagoda where he was a disciple of a monk. The monk told the local outlet VOD that Khon had previously been assaulted in May and received death threats. In April, the 16-year-old son of a CNRP official was injured when he was hit in the head with a brick.

Cambodian police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun denied that Phnom Penh had requested their extradition and told Reuters news agency that all three had been deported for violating Thai immigration laws and had been arrested on arrival in Cambodia because they had accidentally – accidentally were active warrants for their arrest. .

Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at Griffith University, Australia, and an expert on authoritarianism, said cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia “extends the de facto territorial reach of authoritarian regimes”. He said Cambodia has long been involved in these types of arrangements, as Delivering Uighurs to China and Montagnards to Vietnam.

“Authoritarian co-operation may still be in its infancy, but it is becoming more common,” he said. The deportations also have implications for Myanmar dissidents, many of whom fled to Thailand since the coup in February plunged the country back into military dictatorship after 10 years of democratic reform.

Morgenbesser warned that the dissidents would be “an obvious target”, but said the Myanmar army would have to offer something to Thailand in return.

Escalating supervision

The CNRP’s vice president, Mu Sochua, told Al Jazeera she was “anxious and sad about the insecurity of our people in Thailand”.

She says the party plans to write a letter in which they request a meeting with the Thai ambassador in either France or the US to discuss the matter. Sochua is a dual citizen and also has US citizenship, while party leader Sam Rainsy has French citizenship. Thailand also cooperated with Cambodia to prevent their return from exile in 2019, and denied Sochua access to immigration in Bangkok, and refuses to allow Rainsy aboard a Thai Airways flight from France.

“Not much can be done if Thailand agrees to cooperate with Hun Sen,” Sochua acknowledged, but called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to act, warning that otherwise it will become a “failure of ASEAN to protect human rights”.

While Morgenbesser agrees that there is a “clearly a role” for ASEAN to address the issue, he added it is highly unlikely that the bloc would really intervene, especially with Cambodia having just taken the chair for 2022.

Cambodia’s exiled opposition leaders urge ASEAN to do something to protect dissidents, but the country now chairs the 10-member group [File: Handout via Reuters]

Human Rights Watch was also strong in its condemnation of the deportations, noting in a statement that Cambodian refugees hiding in Bangkok in recent months have reported rising levels of surveillance and threats by unidentified people they believe are Cambodian officials.

“Thailand’s actions to send these three Cambodian refugees back on the road are outrageous and unacceptable, and should be condemned worldwide,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy director of Asia, told Al Jazeera. “EU countries meeting at the forthcoming ASEM meeting must call on both Cambodia and Thailand on this heinous violation of refugee protection and rights, and demand an end to these forced deportations.”

ASEM, formally known as the Asia Europe Meeting, will host virtually Thursday and Friday with Cambodia as host.

Seng Mengbunrong, a CNRP youth activist based in Thailand for seven months, says he and other CNRP members feel “less safe” because of the recent deportations.

“We do not know when the Thai police [will] arrest us back in Cambodia and we will go to jail, ”he said, accusing the Thai authorities of violating human and refugee rights.

But Mengbunrong remained defiant, saying that despite the threats, CNRP activists in Thailand would “not keep quiet” and would continue to “fight to restore democracy in Cambodia”.

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