Activists, rights groups say COVID-19 law is now being deployed by the government as another tool to curtail freedoms.
This month, Thailand has deported three opposition activists who had been recognised as refugees back to Cambodia, even as violence against political dissidents surges and another activist was slashed to death 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 opposition 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 commune elections.
The dissolution was widely condemned at the time 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 went on to run virtually unopposed in the 2018 national elections, taking all 125 seats in parliament.
Thavry was one of 489 CNRP candidates elected as a commune chief in 2017, while Samnang was a deputy commune chief and Veasna is a CNRP online broadcaster. Thavry was reportedly accused of attempting to overthrow the government for supporting CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy’s attempted return from exile, while Veasna was charged with incitement after posting a poem on Facebook branding Hun Sen a traitor. It was not immediately clear what charges Samnang is facing. A fourth CNRP member, Mich Heang, was arrested in Thailand on Sunday according to BenarNews and remains in a detention centre in Bangkok facing possible deportation as well.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) condemned both sets of deportations, saying it had notified Thailand that all three had refugee status, and warning that they “face a serious risk of persecution” in Cambodia.
“This action contravenes the principle of non-refoulement, which obliges States – including Thailand – not to expel or return people to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that it had sought “urgent clarification” from Thailand on the matter.
The alarming rise in deportations comes against a backdrop of increasing violence against opposition activists in Cambodia.
On Sunday, CNRP activist Sin Khon was slashed to death by unknown swordsmen near Wat Chas, a pagoda where he was a disciple to a monk. The monk told local outlet VOD that Khon had previously been assaulted in May and had 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, telling Reuters news agency that all three were deported for violating Thai immigration laws and were arrested on their arrival in Cambodia because there happened to be – coincidentally – active warrants for their arrest.
Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at Griffith University, Australia, and an expert in authoritarianism, said cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia “extends the de facto territorial reach of authoritarian regimes”. He said Cambodia has long participated in these types of arrangements, such as by extraditing Uighurs to China and Montagnards to Vietnam.
“Authoritarian cooperation 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 have fled to Thailand since the February coup 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 military would need to offer something to Thailand in return.
The CNRP’s vice president, Mu Sochua, told Al Jazeera she was “anxious and saddened by the insecurity of our people in Thailand”.
She says the party plans to write a letter requesting a meeting with the Thai ambassador in either France or the US to discuss the matter. Sochua is a dual national, holding American citizenship too, while party leader Sam Rainsy holds French citizenship. Thailand also cooperated with Cambodia to prevent their return from exile in 2019, denying Sochua entry at immigration in Bangkok, and refusing to allow Rainsy to board a Thai Airways flight from France.
“Not much can be done if Thailand agrees to collaborate with Hun Sen,” Sochua admitted, but she called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take action, warning that this will otherwise become a “failure of ASEAN to protect human rights”.
While Morgenbesser agrees there is “clearly a role” for ASEAN to address the issue, he added it was highly unlikely the bloc would actually intervene, especially with Cambodia having just taken over the chair for 2022.
Human Rights Watch has also been vocal in its condemnation of the deportations, noting in a statement that in recent months Cambodian refugees hiding in Bangkok had reported escalating levels of surveillance and threats by unidentified people whom they believe are Cambodian officials.
“Thailand’s actions to send these three Cambodian refugees back into harm’s way is outrageous and unacceptable, and should be globally condemned,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director told Al Jazeera. “EU countries meeting at the upcoming ASEM meeting should call out both Cambodia and Thailand on this egregious violation of refugee protection and rights, and demand an end to these forced deportations.”
ASEM, formally known as the Asia Europe Meeting, is due to take place virtually on Thursday and Friday with Cambodia as host.
Seng Mengbunrong, a CNRP youth activist who has been based in Thailand for seven months, says he and other CNRP members feel “less secure” as a result of the recent deportations.
“We don’t know when Thai police [will] arrest us back to Cambodia and we will go to jail,” he said, accusing Thai authorities of disregarding human rights and refugee rights.
But Mengbunrong remained defiant, saying despite the threats, the CNRP activists in Thailand “will not be silent” and will continue to “fight to restore democracy in Cambodia”.