Cambodian political refugees in Thailand say they are living in fear after a spate of arrests and deportations of fellow refugees back to Cambodia by Thai authorities over the past month.
Thailand has arrested five Cambodians registered with the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since early November and forced four of them back to Cambodia, where they were immediately detained on outstanding warrants. The fifth, Bor Bet, was released on bail in Thailand last week and is seeking another country to take him in.
The Center for Asylum Protection, a Thai rights and legal aid group, said that is the fastest pace of deportations of Cambodian refugees from Thailand since the neighbors struck a deal in 2018 to exchange “foreign fugitives” using their countries as a base for “sowing chaos and incitement.”
“Right now we don’t feel safe at all because of the recent events that happened to our colleagues who were arrested by Thai police and then deport[ed] to Cambodia,” Narith, a member of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party who asked that his full name not be used, told VOA by phone from an undisclosed location in Thailand.
The CNRP organizer escaped to Thailand last year while on bail in Cambodia on a charge of conspiring to overthrow the government, which he denies. Narith said he has changed locations three times since the latest arrests started.
Life on the lam
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in 2017 for plotting to topple the government, a move widely seen at home and abroad as politically motivated. The ruling came amid a sweeping government crackdown on unions, rights groups and independent media, and did away with the only viable political challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than 35 years with an increasingly iron grip.
On paper, the court ruling also made criminals of Narith and others still campaigning to oust Hun Sen at the polls under the CNRP banner. Cambodia’s courts have issued dozens of warrants for the arrest of party members.
Narith told VOA that more than 60 CNRP members are still in Thailand since fleeing Cambodia over the past three years.
He said he and others have served time in Cambodia’s overflowing prisons for their politics before and that if forced back, “they would put us in jail again, for sure.”
Fearing arrest by Thai police, Narith said many of them have switched accommodations over the past month, varied their routines and cut back on phone calls and social media posts.
“We have to be careful with the telephone, the internet using, things like that,” he said.
Refugees told VOA they believed they were being watched, followed and photographed in Thailand even before the latest arrests began.
“I changed my place already because I think my old place is not safe,” said another CNRP member hiding in Thailand, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Still, he added, “I feel unsafe every day; we don’t know when the Thai police will arrest anybody and we will [be put] in jail.”
Chhun Sithy, a former commune councilor for the CNRP, also hiding in Thailand, said he has multiple conspiracy convictions waiting for him in Cambodia for continuing to push the CNRP’s cause and would face 10 years in jail if forced back.
He has switched apartments, quit his English language classes to keep indoors and suspended broadcasts of his online talk show about Cambodia.
“I [am] afraid that if they can send my fellows to Cambodia they will send me also,” he said.
Narith said most Cambodian refugees in Thailand crossed over illegally to avoid capture at official border checkpoints. Since arriving, though, he added that nearly all of them have registered with the UNHCR and had their refugee claims recognized.
The Center for Asylum Protections says that recognition should spare them a forced return to Cambodia, where, it adds, they have little chance of a fair trial.
“They [were] all recognized as a refugee, so, for refugees at least, Thailand has to protect them from deportation,” said Rawitsara Piakhuntod, a protection officer for the center.
Although Thailand has not signed the U.N.’s Refugee Convention, the UNHCR says the country is still bound to international law of nonrefoulment, which bars governments from sending people back to countries likely to persecute them, by the other treaties it has joined.
“UNHCR has expressed its concerns and urged the Royal Thai Government to refrain from deporting recognized refugees and to abide by its international obligations, particularly the principle of non-refoulement,” Catherine Stubberfield, a spokesperson for the U.N. agency’s regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific, told VOA.
In a statement last month, Human Rights Watch said Thailand’s forced return of refugees showed a “blatant disregard” for those principles.
Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Tanee Sangrat would not answer questions about the recent arrests and deportations.
Spokespeople for the central government and national police did not answer multiple calls and repeated messages requesting comment.
Achayon Kraithong, a spokesperson for Thailand’s immigration bureau, told Reuters last month that the government would prioritize the country’s immigration laws but avoid sending people into danger.